In 1798 Horatio Nelson’s navy defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who helped to destroy the French flagship L’Orient, sent Nelson a macabre gift:
Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L’Orient’s Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies — but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much obliged servant,
Nelson was indeed buried in it after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
But many observers have commented on what seems to be the fact that fear plays a much smaller part than we should think it must in the life of an animal who lives dangerously. Terror he can know, and perhaps he knows it frequently. But it seems to last only a little longer than the immediate danger it helps him to avoid, instead of lingering, as in the human being it does, until it becomes a burden and a threat. The frightened bird resumes his song as soon as danger has passed, and so does the frightened rabbit his games. It is almost as though they knew that ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.’
– Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons, 1949
Suicide notes left by people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, gathered by Marc Etkind for Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997:
“This is where I get off.” — Harold W., the first suicide, three months after the bridge opened, 1937
“Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.” — 49-year-old John Thomas D.
“I am sorry … I want to keep dad company.” — 24-year-old Charles G. Jr., whose father had jumped four days earlier
“Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition.” — Steven H., the 500th person to jump
“Why do they leave this so easy for suicide? Barbed wires would save a lot of lives.” — A 72-year-old man
“I and my daughter have committed suicide.” — A man who jumped with his 5-year-old daughter
“Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris” — A member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. This was a fake — he turned up a year later selling Bibles in Houston.
One person leapt with $36 in his mouth. “What he meant by this gesture is open to interpretation.”
“Obvious reasons for the bridge’s popularity are that it is easy and effective,” Etkind writes, “but there must be something more, for many suicides travel over the equally effective and accessible Oakland Bridge just to jump off the Golden Gate.”
The tradition of flying a flag at half-staff began when a symbolic space was left at the top of the staff for the “invisible flag of death,” signifying death’s dominion over earthly affairs.
A riderless horse accompanies the funeral procession of U.S. military officers. The horse above, Black Jack, accompanied more than 1,000 such processions, including those for John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur.
When Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova died in 1931, her next show went on as scheduled, with a spotlight circling an empty stage.
In 1784, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed building an enormous cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a cypress-fringed globe 500 feet high. A sarcophagus would rest on a raised catafalque at the bottom of the sphere; by day light would enter through holes pierced in the globe, simulating starlight, and at night a lamp hung in the center would represent the sun.
“I want to situate Newton in the sky,” Boullée wrote. “Sublime mind! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Accept the homage of my weak talents. … O Newton! … I conceive the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery, and thus, somehow, surrounding thee with thyself.”
As far as I can tell, this is unrelated to Thomas Steele’s proposal to enshrine Newton’s house under a stone globe, which came 41 years later. Apparently Newton just inspired globes.
When you die, perhaps you will cease to exist. Or perhaps you’ll be reincarnated, or your soul will go to heaven, or to hell. But in none of these cases will “you” be placed in a casket and lowered into the ground; you will never find yourself in the grave. What all these conceptions have in common is that the dead cannot be buried — they are either elsewhere, or nowhere.
Socrates says, “I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body — and he asks, How shall he bury me? … I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him. … Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.”
(Palle Yourgrau, “Can the Dead Really Be Buried?”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 24:1, 46-68.)
During an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, publisher and organic gardening advocate J.I. Rodale boasted, “I’m in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way.” When Cavett’s next guest, New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, joined them on the couch, Rodale made a snoring sound. Hamill told Cavett, “This looks bad.”
“The audience laughed at that. I didn’t, because I knew Rodale was dead,” Cavett wrote later in the New York Times. “To this day, I don’t know how I knew. I thought, ‘Good God, I’m in charge here. What do I do?’ Next thing I knew I was holding his wrist, thinking, I don’t know anything about what a wrist is supposed to feel like.”
Rodale had died of a heart attack. The episode was never aired.
On Dec. 6, 1917, an overnight express train bearing 300 passengers was approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia, when an unexpected message arrived by telegraph:
“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”
The train stopped safely before the burning French cargo ship Mont-Blanc erupted with the force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, the largest manmade explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons.
The blast killed 2,000 residents, including train dispatcher Vince Coleman. He had remained at work in the telegraph office, sending warnings, until the end.
To-day at 10 a.m. the Cardinal was buried in the church at the back of the Catinari. According to old custom, when he was put into the grave, his head-cook walked up to it and said, ‘At what time will your Eminence dine?’ For a minute there was no response, and then the major-domo replied, ‘His Eminence will not want dinner any more’ (non vuol altro). Then the head-footman came in and asked, ‘At what time will your Eminence want the carriage?’ and the major-domo replied, ‘His Eminence will not want the carriage any more.’ Upon which the footman went out to the door of the church, where the fat coachman sat on the box of the Cardinal’s state carriage, who said, ‘At what time will his Eminence be ready for the carriage?’ and when the footman replied, ‘La sua Eminenza non vuol altro,’ he broke his whip, and throwing down the two pieces on either side the carriage, flung up his hands with a gesture of despair, and drove off.
– From the journal of Augustus Hare, Rome, Dec. 21, 1865
On March 18, 2002, Zimbabwean farmer Terry Ford was murdered on his farm outside Harare, apparently by government-backed invaders.
When authorities arrived they found a 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier guarding the body. “Squeak,” described as Ford’s best friend, had accompanied his master when he tried to escape by breaking down a fence with his car. When this failed, the attackers had pulled Ford from the vehicle, beaten him, tied him to a tree, and shot him through the head.
“When Terry Ford’s battered body was found under a tree, the little terrier was still at his side,” said Meryl Harrison of Zimbabwe’s SPCA. “The dog would not leave the farmer’s body.”
At Ford’s funeral, Squeak followed the procession up the church aisle and sniffed the coffin, evidently confused, before retreating to the arms of Ford’s fiancee. He was finally adopted by a friend of the family.
At 1 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1910, West Virginia peach grower Charles Twigg called on his fiancee, Grace Elosser, at her home in Cumberland, Md. The two were to be married the following day. They closed themselves in the parlor and remained undisturbed until 2:30, when Grace’s mother looked in with a question. She found Charles sitting in a corner of the divan, with Grace leaning against him. Both were dead.
A post-mortem suggested traces of cyanide in their stomachs, but no container was found on the bodies or in the room. If it was not suicide, was it murder? The couple had led uneventful lives, and only Grace’s family had had access to the parlor. A jury returned a verdict of cyanide poisoning “at the hands of person or persons to us unknown.”
The matter remained at an impasse until Jan. 28, when, as an experiment, doctors J.R. Littlefield and A.H. Hawkins left two cats in baskets on the parlor divan, lighted the stove, and closed the door for an hour. Both cats died. The lovers’ bodies were exhumed, and an examination showed that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The flue had been choked with soot, and the odorless gas had overwhelmed the couple.
The Elossers cleaned the flue and moved out the house, but nearly the same tragedy befell the two women who succeeded them. On Feb. 21, 1913, a neighbor happened to call and found both women unconscious in their chairs. It was discovered that two bricks had been placed in the flue to reduce its draft, and soot had again choked the narrowed opening.
British statesman Charles James Fox died in 1806.
His last words to his wife were “Trotter will tell you.”
She had no idea what he meant.
In an anonymous letter to the London Times in 1825, Thomas Steele of Magdalen College, Cambridge, proposed enshrining Isaac Newton’s residence in a stepped stone pyramid surmounted by a vast stone globe. The physicist himself had died more than a century earlier, in 1727, and lay in Westminster Abbey, but Steele felt that preserving his home would produce a monument “not unworthy of the nation and of his memory”:
When travelling through Italy, I was powerfully struck by the unique situation and singular appearance of the Primitive Chapel at Assisi, founded by St. Francis.
As you enter the porch of the great Franciscan church, you view before you this small cottage-like chapel, standing directly under the dome, and perfectly isolated.
Now, Sir, among the many splendid improvements which are making in the capital, would it not be a noble, and perhaps the most appropriate, national monument which could be erected, if an azure hemispherical dome, or what would be better, a portion of a sphere greater than a hemisphere, supported on a massive base, were to be reared, like that of Assisi, over the house and observatory of the writer of the Principia?
The house might be fitted up in such a manner as to contain a council-chamber and library for the Royal Society; and it is perhaps not unworthy of being remarked, that it is not more than about two hundred yards distant from the University Club House.
Protected, by the means which I have described, from the dilapidating influence of rains and winds, the venerable edifice in which Newton studied, or was inspired, — that ‘palace of the soul,’ might stand fast for ages, a British monument more sublime than the Pyramids, though remote antiquity and vastness be combined to create their interest.
Steele wasn’t an architect, and he left the details to others, but he was imagining something enormous: In a subsequent letter to the Mechanics’ Magazine he wrote that “the base of my design [appears] to coincide with the base of St. Paul’s (a sort of crude coincidence of course, in consequence of the angle at the transept), and that the highest point of my designed building should, at the same time, appear to coincide with a point of the great tower of the cathedral, about 200 feet high — the height of the building which I propose to have erected.”
The plan never went forward, but the magazine endorsed the idea: “We need scarcely add, that there is no description of embellishment which might not be with ease introduced into the structure, so as to render it as perpetual a monument to the taste as it would be to the national spirit and gratitude of the British people.”
Claudette is born in 1950 and dies in an accident in 2000. If the accident had not occurred she would lived until 2035. We think of this as a misfortune because her life has been cut short — she has lost 35 years.
But it’s equally true that Claudette might have been born in 1915 and enjoyed another 35 years of life in that way. Why don’t we regard this as equally tragic? “We feel uncomfortable with the idea that her late birth is as great a misfortune for Claudette as her premature death,” writes philosopher Fred Feldman. “Why is this?”
Lucretius wrote, “Think too how the bygone antiquity of everlasting time before our birth was nothing to us. Nature therefore holds this up to us as a mirror of the time yet to come after our death. Is there aught in this that looks appalling, aught that wears an aspect of gloom? Is it not more untroubled than any sleep?” Why are we more troubled at a lost future than a lost past?
The last great auk in the British Isles was killed because its keepers feared it might be a witch. In 1840 five men discovered it asleep on the Scottish island of Stac an Armin. From John Alexander Harvie-Brown’s Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides (1888):
It was Malcolm M’Donald who actually laid hold of the bird, and held it by the neck with his two hands, till others came up and tied its legs. It used to make a great noise, like that made by a gannet, but much louder, when shutting its mouth. It opened its mouth when any one came near it. It nearly cut the rope with its bill. A storm arose, and that, together with the size of the bird and the noise it made, caused them to think it was a witch. It was killed on the third day after it was caught, and M’Kinnon declares they were beating it for an hour with two large stones before it was dead: he was the most frightened of all the men, and advised the killing of it.
They threw the body behind the hut and left it there.
When the last heath hen, “Booming Ben,” died in 1932 on Martha’s Vineyard, local newspaper editor Henry Beetle Hough wrote an obituary for the species: “There is a void in the April dawn, there is an expectancy unanswered … We are looking upon the utmost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.”
Letter from the Bishop of Chelmsford to the Times, Feb. 3, 1923:
Sir, I wonder how many of us, born and brought up in the Victorian era, would like to think that in the year, say, 5923, the tomb of Queen Victoria would be invaded by a party of foreigners who rifled it of its contents, took the body of the great Queen from the mausoleum in which it had been placed amid the grief of the whole people, and exhibited it to all and sundry who might wish to see it?
The question arises whether such treatment as we should count unseemly in the case of the great English Queen is not equally unseemly in the case of King Tutankhamen. I am not unmindful of the great historical value which may accrue from the examination of the collection of jewelry, furniture, and, above all, of papyri discovered within the tomb, and I realize that wide interests may justify their thorough investigation and even, in special cases, their temporary removal. But, in any case, I protest strongly against the removal of the body of the King from the place where it has rested for thousands of years. Such a removal borders on indecency, and traverses all Christian sentiment concerning the sacredness of the burial places of the dead.
A tombstone from “a well-known town in the north, Gateshead,” from Henry Sampson’s History of Advertising From the Earliest Times, 1875:
“Do tripe and trotters after all produce a prosaic condition of the human mind suggested by this tombstone, or would the relict of Jeremy have done as she did had her wares been of a different kind?” asks Sampson. “In the interests of the edibles referred to, for which we must confess a weakness, we trust she would.”
F.W.H. Myers, whom spiritualism had converted to belief in a future life, questioned a woman who had lately lost her daughter as to what she supposed had become of her soul. The mother replied: ‘Oh, well, I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.’
– Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” 1943
“I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death.” — Francis Bacon
Miss Mildred West, whose duties on the Alton [Ill.] Evening Telegraph include the writing of obituaries, has been taking a week’s vacation. And, for the first time in the memory of her fellow workers on the newspaper, a week has passed with no deaths being reported in this city of 32,000. Normally, ten occur every week.
– New York Times, Sept. 1, 1946
Three nightmare glimpses of World War I:
The first experience I had of rotting bodies had been at Serre, where, as a battalion, we dealt with the best part of a thousand dead who came to pieces in our hands. As you lifted a body by its arms and legs they detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst thing. Each body was covered inches deep with a black fur of flies which flew up into your face, into your mouth, eyes and nostrils, as you approached. The bodies crawled with maggots. … We stopped every now and then to vomit. … The bodies had the consistency of Camembert cheese. I once fell and put my hand through the belly of a man. It was days before I got the smell out of my hands.
– British lieutenant Stuart Cloete on a burial party after the Somme, from his autobiography A Victorian Son
At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on … [Later] we saw the sack we had thrown over the dead Jerry heaving up and down, and there was pretty pussy, still rending and tearing the body; so we shot it and continued our march to Longavesnes.
– From the diary of British lieutenant Edwin Vaughan of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, April 1917
One evening, whilst on patrol, Jacques saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. His heart pounding, he edged towards one of the bodies. Its helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured. A set of false teeth slid down on to his rotting jacket, and from the yawning mouth leapt an unspeakably foul beast.
– A French soldier, quoted in John Ellis’ Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989
When a man dies
His portraits change.
His eyes look at you
Differently and his lips smile
A different smile. I noticed this
Returning from a poet’s funeral.
Since then I have seen it verified
Often and my theory is true.
– Anna Akhmatova, 1940
Let’s hope this isn’t true — Francis Joseph Baigent’s History of the Ancient Town and Manor of Basingstoke (1889) records the story of a woman who was buried alive twice. Baigent cites two sources, an undated tract from around 1675 and a book published in 1786, The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death. Mrs. Blunden, the wife of a local malt trader, was “a fat gross woman” who in July 1674 drank so much poppy-water (opium) that she fell into a deep sleep that arrested any apparent breath or pulse. The apothecary declared that he supposed she would never wake, and her husband left for London on business, directing that she be buried on his return. But the woman’s relatives noted that the weather was warm and that the body would not last four days, so they buried her on the following day, a Wednesday. Now the tract reads:
The Friday following toward the evening some of the Scholars of the Town being at play in the Churchyard near her grave, they fancied they heard a kind of hollow voice, as it were under ground, to which laying their ears and listening more attentively they plainly heard somebody say:
Take me out of my Grave,
which words the complaining voice repeated several times, intermixing them with fearful groans and dismal shriekings.
The boys reported this to several people but were dismissed. They returned to the chuchyard on Saturday and heard the voice again, “if not with so distinct yet with a louder accent,” and that afternoon the clerk finally exhumed Mrs. Blunden. “And now surveying her body, they found it most lamentably beaten, which they concluded to proceed from the violence she did herself in that deplorable an astonishment, but upon the most diligent scrutiny they could not apprehend that she had the least breath of life remaining, and therefore they again let her down into the grave, intending on the morrow to send to the Coroner.”
Guards were set to watch the resealed grave, but as the night was wet they abandoned their post, and “on the morrow morning at their return to the grave, they found she had torn off great part of her winding sheet, scratched herself first in several places, and beaten her mouth so long till it was all in gore blood.”
A number of citizens were indicted for their negligence, but a town doctor testified that he had held a mirror to Blunden’s mouth before her burial and could see no sign of breath, so “only the Town had a considerable fine set upon them for their neglect.”
On New Year’s Eve 1819, 33-year-old London tea dealer Elton Hamond committed suicide. A man found guilty of deliberate self-murder would forfeit his estate, so Hamond composed this plea:
To the Coroner and the Gentlemen who will sit on my Body.
Norwood, 31st December, 1819.
To the charge of self-murder I plead not guilty. For there is no guilt in what I have done. Self-murder is a contradiction in terms. If the King who retires from his throne is guilty of high treason; if the man who takes money out of his own coffers and spends it is a thief; if he who burns his own hayrick is guilty of arson; or he who scourges himself of assault and battery, then he who throws up his own life may be guilty of murder, — if not, not.
If anything is a man’s own, it is surely his life. Far, however, be it from me to say that a man may do as he pleases with his own. Of all that he has he is a steward. Kingdoms, money, harvests, are held in trust, and so, but I think less strictly, is life itself. Life is rather the stewardship than the talent. The King who resigns his crown to one less fit to rule is guilty, though not of high treason; the spendthrift is guilty, though not of theft; the wanton burner of his hayrick is guilty, though not of arson; the suicide who could have performed the duties of his station is perhaps guilty, though not of murder, not of felony. They are all guilty of neglect of duty, and all, except the suicide, of breach of trust. But I cannot perform the duties of my station. He who wastes his life in idleness is guilty of a breach of trust; he who puts an end to it resigns his trust, — a trust that was forced upon him, — a trust which I never accepted, and probably never would have accepted. Is this felony? I smile at the ridiculous supposition. How we came by the foolish law which considers suicide as felony I don’t know; I find no warrant for it in Philosophy or Scripture. It is worthy of the times when heresy and apostacy were capital offences; when offences were tried by battle, ordeal, or expurgation; when the fine for slaying a man was so many shillings, and that for slaying an ass a few more or less.
Every old institution will find its vindicators while it remains in practice. I am an enemy to all hasty reform, but so foolish a law as this should be put an end to. Does it become a jury to disregard it? For juries to disregard their oaths for the sake of justice is, as you probably know, a frequent practice. The law places them sometimes in the cruel predicament of having to choose between perjury and injustice: whether they do right to prefer perjury, as the less evil, I am not sure. I would rather be thrown naked into a hole in the road than that you should act against your consciences. But if you wish to acquit me, I cannot see that your calling my death accidental, or the effect of insanity, would be less criminal than a jury’s finding £10 Bank-of-England note worth thirty-nine shillings, or premeditated slaying in a duel simple manslaughter, both of which have been done. But should you think this too bold a course, is it less bold to find me guilty of being felo de se when I am not guilty at all, as there is no guilt in what I have done? I disdain to take advantage of my situation as culprit to mislead your understandings, but if you, in your consciences, think premeditated suicide no felony, will you, upon your oaths, convict me of felony? Let me suggest the following verdict, as combining liberal truth with justice: — ‘Died by his own hand, but not feloniously.’ If I have offended God, it is for God, not you, to enquire. Especial public duties I have none. If I have deserted any engagement in society, let the parties aggrieved consign my name to obloquy. I have for nearly seven years been disentangling myself from all my engagements, that I might at last be free to retire from life. I am free to-day, and avail myself of my liberty. I cannot be a good man, and prefer death to being a bad one, — as bad as I have been and as others are.
I take my leave of you and of my country condemning you all, yet with true honest love. What man, alive to virtue, can bear the ways of the best of you? Not I, you are wrong altogether. If a new and better light appears, seek it; in the meantime, look out for it. God bless you all!
Hamond left the letter with his friend Henry Crabb Robinson: “Mind you don’t get yourself into a scrape by making an over-zealous speech if you attend as my counsel. You may say throughout, ‘The culprit’s defence is this.’” Robinson, fearing a scandal, passed it unread to Hamond’s relations, and the jury found Hamond insane.