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
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.”