“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.
“To himself every one is an immortal: he may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead.” — Samuel Butler
Once, at the chambers of Sir William Jones, while some books were being removed, a large spider dropped upon the floor and Sir William said to Mr. Day, the philanthropist, who stood near him, ‘Kill that spider, Day; kill that spider!’ ‘No,’ said Mr. Day, with that coolness for which he was so conspicuous, ‘I will not kill that spider, Jones; I do not know that I have a right to kill that spider! Suppose when you are going in your coach to Westminster Hall, a superior being who, perhaps, may have as much power over you as you have over this insect, should say to his companion, ‘Kill that lawyer; kill that lawyer!’ how should you like that, Jones? and I am sure to most people a lawyer is a more obnoxious animal than a spider.’
– Thomas Brackett Reed, Modern Eloquence, 1900
A jester being on his death-bed, one of his companions begged when he got to the other world, he would put in a good word for him. ‘I may perhaps forget,’ said he; ‘tie a string about my finger.’
– The Laughing Philosopher, 1825
I want now to introduce another case — the case of a young officer in the cavalry who was killed in the charge of the Light Brigade. This officer was among the leaders of the charge and was shot quite early by a soldier named Ivan. Suppose that, had he not been shot by Ivan, he would have been killed within a few seconds by a bullet fired by Boris, who also had him within his sights. Our natural response to this case is to say that the officer’s death was a grave misfortune, depriving him of many years of life. Yet … should we not also conclude that in this case all the officer lost in being shot by Ivan was a few seconds of life, so that his death was hardly a misfortune at all?
– Jeff McMahan, “Death and the Value of Life,” Ethics, October 1988
A youth, the son of Mr. Richard Bolton, of Great Horton, Yorkshire, was playing a few days since with a juvenile companion, who was pretending to place a pea in his ear and to make it come out of his mouth. Bolton, believing the feat to have been really performed, was induced to make the attempt himself, and thrust the pea so far into his ear that it could not be got out. In a vain endeavour to extract it made by a medical man, it was sent further in, and the poor boy died four days afterwards from the effects.
– Times, Nov. 27, 1850
In the burying-ground at Newburyport, may be seen a stone inscribed:
Omnem Crede Dicum Tibi Diluxesse Supremum.
Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Mary M’Hard, the virtuous and amiable consort of Capt. Wm. M’Hard of Newburyport, who amidst the laudable exertions of a very useful and desirable life, in which her Christian Profession was well adorned and a fair copy of every social virtue displayed, was in a state of health suddenly summoned to the Skies and snatched from ye eager embraces of her friends, (and the throbbing breasts of her disconsolate family confessed their fairest prospects of sublinary bliss were in one moment dashed) by swallowing a Pea at her own table, whence in a few hours, she sweetly breathed her soul away unto her SAVIOUR’S arms on the 8th day of March, A. D. 1780.
– John Robert Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1877
Puzzling tombstones, quoted in Grave Humor, Alonzo C. Hall, 1961:
This tombstone is a milestone. Why so?
Because beneath lies Miles. He’s Miles below.
A little man was he, a dwarf in size,
Yet now stretched out, at least Miles long he lies.
This grave, though small, contains a space so wide.
There’s Miles in breadth and length and room beside.
Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him,
He lived Knott and did Knott die,
Yet underneath this stone doth lie.
Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid
But died an old Mann
Dec. 8, 1767
The young Charles Lamb, visiting a churchyard with this sister, asked, “Mary, where are all the naughty people buried?”
We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant. Is it not odd, is it not incongruous, is it not, in the highest sense of human speech, incredible, that we should think so highly of the ginger-beer, and regard so little the devouring earthquake?
– Robert Louis Stevenson, “Aes Triplex,” 1878
David Kendrick’s “life expectancy timepiece,” patented in 1991, offers a running countdown of your remaining time on earth.
Using actuarial data, enter the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds that you expect to live, and adjust this total according to the health factors in Table II.
Then set it going. It’s not quite as bad as it looks: You can press the RUN/STOP button to pause the countdown while you’re engaged in a healthful activity (“e.g. taking a walk, breathing fresh air, etc.”). And life expectancy improves with age, so you can add a few years on certain birthdays.
But still, it’s pretty sobering. An alternate version actually includes a speaker that provides “an audible signal, as a reminder that time is passing.” “This audible signal may be adapted to operate automatically at a particular time each day or may be suppressed by the user.”
An ordinary cremation consumes valuable energy and consigns the body to flames, which has unpleasant connotations of hellfire and damnation. In 1983 Kenneth H. Gardner invented a greener, more uplifting alternative — the corpse is elevated through the roof and then cremated by concentrated solar energy.
A temperature of about 1,700° F. is required to provide incineration and a total of about 3,000,000 BTU’s is required to consume a corpse. Thus, at a supply rate of about 1,000,000 BTU/hour, cremation would take about three hours. A concave mirror-reflector bowl similar to the steam-producing Crosbyton hemisphere in Lubbock, Texas is considered a suitable collector. At 65 ft. diameter, a bowl of this type can produce approximately 1,000,000 BTU/Hr. under full sunshine conditions from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Gas burners are still available “for auxiliary use during inclement weather and/or when it is desired to expedite the cremation process.”
Reiss records the death of a woman who was hastily buried while her husband was away, and on his return he ordered exhumation of her body, and on opening the coffin a child’s cry was heard. The infant had evidently been born postmortem. It lived long afterward under the name of ‘Fils de la terre.’ Willoughby mentions the curious instance in which rumbling was heard from the coffin of a woman during her hasty burial. One of her neighbors returned to the grave, applied her ear to the ground, and was sure she heard a sighing noise. A soldier with her affirmed her tale, and together they went to a clergyman and a justice, begging that the grave be opened. When the coffin was opened it was found that a child had been born, which had descended to her knees. In Derbyshire, to this day, may be seen on the parish register: ‘April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave.’
– George Milbry Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1896
On July 3, 1863, 20-year-old Pennsylvania seamstress Ginnie Wade was kneading dough in her sister’s kitchen when a bullet pierced the door behind her and passed through her heart, killing her instantly.
She was the only civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg.
- It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.
- More than half of Uganda’s population is under 15.
- 176502 + 381252 = 1765038125
- Uzbekistan is surrounded by “stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.
- Great Britain never puts its name on postage stamps.
In June 2011, 49-year-old Fagilyu Mukhametzyanov of Russia woke up in a coffin surrounded by weeping relatives. Realizing she was at her own funeral, she began screaming and was rushed back to the hospital, which declared her dead of a heart attack. “I am very angry and want answers,” her husband, Fagili, told the Sun. “She wasn’t dead when they said she was, and they could have saved her.” (Thanks, Mark.)
When Polish composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in hopes that he might appear as Yorick in a production of Hamlet.
No one felt comfortable fulfilling this wish until David Tennant used the skull in a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. He continued to use it throughout the production’s West End run and in a later television adaptation.
“André’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide,” said director Gregory Doran. “I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”
Closing lines of a letter to Samuel Pepys from his brother-in-law, 1686:
I am Sir Stopped with a Torent of Sorofull Lamentation, for Oh god I have lost, oh I have lost such a loss, that noe man is or cann be Sensible but my Selfe: I have lost my wife, Sir, I have lost my wife; and such a wife, as your Honour knows has (may be) not lefte her felow, I cannot say any more at present being overwhelmed …
From the King James Bible, 2 Samuel 18:33, on David’s grief at the loss of his son:
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
Poet Paul Monette wrote this elegy after his lover Roger Horwitz died of AIDS on Oct. 22, 1986:
for hours at the end I kissed your temple stroked
your hair and sniffed it it smelled so clean we’d
washed it Saturday night when the fever broke
as if there was always the perfect thing to do
to be alive for years I’d breathe your hair
when I came to bed late it was such pure you
why I nuzzle your brush every morning because
you’re in there just like the dog the night
we unpacked the hospital bag and he skipped
and whimpered when Dad put on the red
sweater Cover my bald spot will you
you’d say and tilt your head like a parrot
so I could fix you up always always
till this one night when I was reduced to
I love you little friend here I am my
sweetest pea over and over spending all our
endearments like stray coins at a border
but wouldn’t cry then no choked it because
they all said hearing was the last to go
the ear is like a wolf’s till the very end
straining to hear a whole forest and I
wanted you loping off whatever you could
still dream to the sound of me at 3 P.M.
you were stable still our favorite word
at 4 you took the turn WAIT WAIT I AM
THE SENTRY HERE nothing passes as long as
I’m where I am we go on death is
a lonely hole two can leap it or else
or else there is nothing this man is mine
he’s an ancient Greek like me I do
all the negotiating while he does battle
we are war and peace in a single bed
we wear the same size shirt it can’t it can’t
be yet not this just let me brush his hair
it’s only Tuesday there’s chicken in the fridge
from Sunday night he ate he slept oh why
don’t all these kisses rouse you I won’t won’t
say it all I will say is goodnight patting
a few last strands in place you’re covered now
my darling one last graze in the meadow
of you and please let your final dream be
a man not quite your size losing the whole
world but still here combing combing
singing your secret names till the night’s gone
Monette himself died of AIDS nine years later.
… Not that the eye-witness accounts of the over-publicized Great Plague of London can be called exaggerated. There are heartrending records of what happened in rural villages too. In one small hamlet, a parish register informs us, more or less incidentally, everyone died, and the last full-grown man to get the disease actually dug his own grave in the yard and buried himself in it. He seems to have taken this strange action because he was certain he must die and because he knew that the servant-girl and boy, who alone would be left alive, would never be able to get his body out of the house. This was at Malpas in Cheshire in September, 1625.
– Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost, 1965
Convicted of murder in Illinois in 1934, Walter Dittman composed a poem to serve as his last words:
I see it grimly waiting patiently for me,
To send me as its victim into eternity.
Not a whit or bit of mercy does it show for man or beast.
Its only song is, “Die, you dog, for your slide to hell is greased.”
It’s not the thought that I’m to die that makes me want to pray.
It’s because I’ll not be there, my own, to wipe your tears away.
God knows, and so do you, that I never slew nor stole,
And though the whole world’s turned against me,
He’ll have mercy on my soul.
The will of John George, of Lambeth, who died in London in June, 1791, contained the following words: ‘Seeing that I have had the misfortune to be married to the aforesaid Elizabeth, who ever since our union has tormented me in every possible way; that, not content with making game of all my remonstrances, she has done all she could to render my life miserable; that heaven seems to have sent her into the world solely to drive me out of it; that the strength of Samson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the skill of Pyrrhus, the patience of Job, the philosophy of Socrates, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilance of Hermogenes, would not suffice to subdue the perversity of her character; that no power on earth can change her, seeing we have lived apart during the last eight years, and that the only result has been the ruin of my son, whom she has corrupted and estranged from me; weighing maturely and seriously all these considerations, I bequeath to my said wife Elizabeth the sum of one shilling, to be paid unto her within six months after my death.’
– Albany Law Journal, March 24, 1900
Lieutenant Colonel Nash got even with his wife by leaving the bell ringers of Bath abbey 50 pounds a year on condition that they muffle the bells of said abbey on the anniversary of his marriage and ring them with ‘doleful accentuation from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.’ and on the anniversary of his death to ring a merry peal for the same space ‘in memory of his happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness.’
– The Bar, November 1908
For about half a century, Sydney residents could take a train to the cemetery. It departed twice daily from central Sydney, picking up mourners and coffins along the way, and carried them to the 250-acre Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek.
London’s Necropolis Railway ran at about the same time, carrying cadavers and mourners 23 miles southwest of town to Brookwood, Surrey. In 1904, Railway Magazine called the Brookwood station “the most peaceful in three corners of the kingdom — this station of the dead. Here, even the quiet, subdued puffing of the engine seems almost sympathetic with the sorrow of its living freight.” Both lines closed in the 1940s.