A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:
And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.
With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’
- without his knapsack
- without his rags
- in his underwear
- a skeleton with ripped-out entrails
They took him away in May.
That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.'”
Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”
Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:
“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”
Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.
In contrast to the usual lugubrious tombstones, the “merry cemetery” in Săpânța, Romania, fills hundreds of colorful markers with darkly humorous biographies of the town’s residents:
Here I rest
Pop Grigore is my name
My tractor was my joy
Drowned my sorrow in my wine
I lived a troubled life
For my father left me young
Such my fate was
That I should leave life
Death, you took me early
I was only 33.
Here I appear as well
On my father-in-law’s cross
Pop Grigore is my name
And I want to tell you all
That I learned in school
Finished high school
I was an accountant
And helped the state
The cuckoo sang my song
To die in Sighetu
And I left this life when I
Was 35 years old.
One more thing I loved very much,
To sit at a table in a bar
Next to someone else’s wife.
Death with ugly name
Swiftly you took me away
You did not feel sorry for me
I must see my girls
And son get married
Build them beautiful house
And give them good advice
On how to live in this world
Marie, my wife
You remained as a host
To be their mom and dad
Marry them well
And raise Irina with care
I cannot join you anymore
For I have stepped on foreign lands
I have nothing more to say
From this other world I am in.
The tradition was started by local carpenter Stan Ioan Pătraș, who in 1935 began carving candid epitaphs for the town’s residents, like a Romanian Edgar Lee Masters. Pătraș died in 1977 and left the business to his apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who says that in 30 years no one has ever complained about the tradition. “It’s the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that … There’s no hiding in a small town … The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross.”
“The people here don’t react to death as though it were a tragedy,” the town’s Orthodox priest told the New York Times. “Death is just a passage to another life.”
Angelo Lerro hated the thought of a body mouldering in a traditional casket, so in 1910 he offered this tidy alternative: The body is embalmed and arranged in a natural posture in a hermetically sealed glass bell filled with a preservative gas. This way the survivors can view the deceased without distress, and entire graveyards can be filled with sealed bells to keep soil and watercourses clean. (I suppose it will also keep down the vampire population.)
In 1833 a cholera outbreak struck Guanajuato, Mexico, and the dead were buried in a local cemetery. Sixty-three years later, in 1896, city officials levied a fee on burial plots, and poor families had to agree to have their dead relatives disinterred. They were horrified to discover not skeletons but grotesquely preserved bodies, contorted into nightmarish postures and facial expressions. The region’s climate and soil conditions had combined to preserve the corpses.
The city has put 119 of the bodies, some still bearing hair, eyebrows, and folds of skin, on display. Author Tom Weil writes, “In the figures one sees both the living and the departed, death with a human face and humanity with the skull beneath the skin.”
Ray Bradbury, who visited the museum in the 1940s, wrote, “They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way. All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming.
“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”
In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”
Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.
“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.
“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”
In Western religion we seek to attain immortality; in Eastern religion we seek to escape it.
“The secret of religious enlightenment, revealed to the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bo tree, is the suppression of desire, a systematic elimination of all our attachments to the world,” writes Gordon Graham in his Eight Theories of Ethics. “In such turning away comes moksha or release and eventually, for it may take more than one life to achieve it, entry to Nirvana — a term which captures both the idea of nothingness and of heaven. The Buddhist ideal, then, finds supreme value in personal extinction. (Whether this amounts to total extinction is a further matter.) In so doing it wholly discounts subjective values because it is these, after all, that keep us chained to the unending cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
“It is of great interest to note that, while Western minds are accustomed to think of religious faith as entailing the belief and hope that we will be saved from eternal death and live for ever, the belief of Eastern religions is that, other things being equal, we do live for ever and it is from this dreadful fate that we must look to spirituality to save us.”
Some amoebae, to be sure, do die. Sometimes an amoeba cannot get sufficient food or oxygen or moisture to sustain its life, and that kills it. But some amoebae do not get an opportunity to die … let us consider a well-fed, healthy amoeba alone in a drop of well-oxygenated pond water. I shall call it ‘Alvin.’ Alvin, let us suppose, lives happily through Tuesday and then, precisely at the stroke of midnight, Alvin divides, producing two offspring whom I shall call ‘Amos’ and ‘Ambrose.’ On Wednesday, we find two amoebae — Amos and Ambrose — swimming happily about in our drop of pond water. But what has become of Alvin? One thing is quite clear: Alvin is not an inhabitant of our drop of pond water on Wednesday. … His life, therefore, must have come to an end. But it is equally clear that Alvin did not die.
— Jay F. Rosenberg, Thinking Clearly About Death, 1983
The tombstone of Constanze Mozart’s second husband calls him “the husband of Mozart’s widow.”
While lying on his deathbed in 1816, Welsh judge George Hardinge received a bill from his London stationers, Tripeaux and Co. It was addressed to “Mr. Justice Hardinge, if living; or his executors, if dead.” He wrote back:
Messrs. Tripeaux, what is fear’d by you,
Alas! the melancholy circumstance is true,
That I am dead; and more afflicting still,
My legal assets cannot pay your bill.
To think of this, I am almost broken hearted,
Insolvent I, this earthly life departed;
Dear Messrs. T., I am yours without a farthing,
For executors and self,
He died three hours later.
In 1952, to “indulge a whim of a peculiar nature,” retired funeral director David H. Brown built a house out of 500,000 empty embalming-fluid bottles.
Situated on the shores of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, the cloverleaf-shaped house occupies 1,200 square feet, including two bedrooms, a fireplace, a kitchen, and a terrace.
The bottles, together, weigh 250 tons.
On my deathbed I exact a promise from you. Then I die, and you ignore the promise. Most of us would feel that this is wrong, but why? If I no longer exist, then who is wronged by your omission?
Similarly, it seems wrong to disparage the dead, or to mistreat a corpse. But why? Can we have a moral obligation to a person who doesn’t exist? Do the dead have rights?
“The dead, if they exist at all, are so much dust,” writes philosopher George Pitcher. “How is it possible for so much dust to be wronged?”
“If Socrates died, he died either when he was alive or when he was dead. He did not die when he was alive — for then the same man would have been both living and dead. Nor when he was dead; for then he would have been dead twice. Therefore Socrates did not die.”
— Sextus Empiricus, Against the Physicists
In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.
Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:
When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”
Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:
I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’
They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’
The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.
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