In Japanese culture it is traditional to write a “farewell poem to life,” or jisei, as death approaches. Zen monk Kozan Ichikyo wrote this verse on the morning of his death in 1360:
Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
And monk Mumon Gensen wrote this in 1390:
Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.
On March 17, 1945, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi sent a letter to Imperial headquarters apologizing for ceding Iwo Jima to American forces. He closed with a death poem:
Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.
His body could not be identified later — it appears that prior to the final battle he removed his officer’s insignia in order to fight among his men as an ordinary soldier.
James Bosworth survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 and went on to become a railway stationmaster in Southampton, England, where he died in an accident at age 70. His epitaph reads:
Though shot and shell flew around fast,
On Balaclava’s plain,
Unscathed he passed, to fall at last,
Run over by a train.
The 2007 funeral of Amir Vehabović was poorly attended — 46 people had been invited to the ceremony, but only his mother turned up.
The other 45 received this letter:
To all my dear ‘friends,’
Some of you I have known since early school days, others I have only forged a relationship with in the last few years. Until my ‘funeral,’ I considered all of you close friends. So it was with shock and, I admit, sadness and anger that I realized not one of you managed to find the time to come and say goodbye to me when you heard I was to be buried. I would have understood if just some of you came, bearing flowers or words of apology from others who could not make it. But no. Not a single one of you turned up to pay your last respects. I lived for our friendships. They meant as much to me as life itself. But how easy it was for you all to forget the pledges of undying friendship I heard on so many occasions. How different our ideas of friendship seem to be. I paid a lot of money to get a fake death certificate and to bribe undertakers to handle an empty coffin. I thought my funeral would be a good joke — the kind of prank we have all played on one another over the years. Now I have just one last message for you: my ‘funeral’ might have been staged, but you might as well consider me dead, because I will not be seeing any of you again.
“Not to be born is, past all prizing, best,” wrote Sophocles. Does this mean that life is not worth living? For surely that judgment must be made from “inside” a lived life, whose subjective judgments are always open to question.
In four U.S. states a severely disabled child can sue a doctor for “wrongful life” for bringing him into the world. In 1980 the California Court of Appeal wrote:
The reality of the ‘wrongful-life’ concept is that such a plaintiff both exists and suffers, due to the negligence of others. It is neither necessary nor just to retreat into meditation on the mysteries of life. We need not be concerned with the fact that had defendants not been negligent, the plaintiff might not have come into existence at all. The certainty of genetic impairment is no longer a mystery. In addition, a reverent appreciation of life compels recognition that plaintiff, however impaired she may be, has come into existence as a living person with certain rights.
The rest of us, it seems, must find a way to be philosophical. After all, Lionel Tollemache wrote, “If there is more pain than pleasure in life, were not Hyder Ali and Napoleon, who put so many human sufferers out of existence, deserving of praise as beneficent heroes?”
Clement Vallandigham accidentally shot himself demonstrating how one might accidentally shoot oneself. The Ohio lawyer was representing a defendant accused of killing a man in a barroom brawl. Vallandigham wanted to show that the victim might have shot himself while trying to draw his pistol from a kneeling position.
“I’ll show you how Tom Myers shot himself,” he said to his fellow defense attorneys in discussing the case. He put a gun into his pocket and began to draw it. “There, that’s the way Myers held it,” he said, “only he was getting up, not standing erect.” And he touched the trigger.
“A sudden flash — the half suppressed sound of a shot — and Clement L. Vallandigham, with an expression of agony, exclaimed: ‘My God, I’ve shot myself!’ and reeled toward the wall a wounded and dying man — wounded and dying by his own hands.”
He died of peritonitis, but he’d proved his point — the defendant was acquitted.
Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born — a hundred million years — and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography
The Waterford Chronicle requests that persons supplying the Journal with obituaries will attend to the following scale of prices (the idea is droll); for a simple death two shillings and sixpence. For the death of a person deeply regretted, five shillings. For the death of a person who lived a perfect pattern of all the Christian virtues, and died regretted by the whole country, ten shillings. For the death of a person who possessed extensive literature and profound erudition, superadded to which, his whole life was remarkable for piety, humility, charity, and self-denial, one pound. For the death of a lady, whose husband is inconsolable for her loss, and who was the delight of the circle in which she moved, one pound ten shillings. For the death of a gentleman, who had only been six months married, who was an example of every conjugal and domestic virtue, and whose widow is in a state of anguish bordering on distraction, two pounds. For the death of an aristocrat, who was a pattern of meekness, a model of humility, a patron of distressed genius, a genuine philanthropist, an exemplary Christian, an extensive alms-giver, profoundly learned, unremitting to the duties of his station, kind, hospitable, and affectionate to his tenantry, and whose name will be remembered and his loss deplored to the latest posterity, five pounds. For every additional good quality, whether domestic, moral, or religious, there will be an additional charge.
— Birmingham Journal, Aug. 21, 1830
Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.
— James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895
In the 1860s, workers discovered the remains of a cat and a rat behind the organ in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral.
There’s no telling how long they’d been there. Their bodies had been desiccated in the dry air of the church.
Did Socrates commit suicide? Philosopher R.G. Frey argues that he did. Socrates’ final conversations with Phaedo and his friends show that he intended to drink the hemlock, and he drank it intentionally, knowing its effect and without being forced. It’s true that he had been sentenced to die, but still he chose to accept the cup rather than compel another to take his life.
“The fact that Socrates died a noble and dignified death does not show that he did not commit suicide,” writes Frey, “but rather that suicide need not be ignoble and undignified.”
(R.G. Frey, “Did Socrates Commit Suicide?”, Philosophy 53:203 [January 1978], 106-108.)
“Foolish man, what do you bemoan, and what do you fear? Wherever you look there is an end of evils. You see that yawning precipice? It leads to liberty. You see that flood, that river, that well? Liberty houses within them. You see that stunted, parched, and sorry tree? From each branch liberty hangs. Your neck, your throat, your heart are all so many ways of escape from slavery … Do you enquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein in your body.” — Seneca
In the West Indies, according to the Spanish historian Girolamo Benzoni, four thousand men and countless women and children died by jumping from cliffs or by killing each other. He adds that, out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti, fewer than 150 survived as a result of the suicides and slaughter. In the end the Spaniards, faced with an embarrassing labor shortage, put a stop to the epidemic of suicides by persuading the Indians that they, too, would kill themselves in order to pursue them in the next world with even harsher cruelties.
— Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971