An American, named Sanborn, living at Medford, Mass., in his will, dated 1871, bequeathed his body to Harvard University, and ‘especially to the manipulation of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz.’ He requested that his skin be made into two drumheads, to become the property of his life-long friend, Warren Simpson, leader of a drum corps, of Cohasset, on condition that on Bunker Hill at sunrise, June 17th, each year, he should beat on the said drum the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ On one drum-head was to be inscribed Pope’s ‘Universal Prayer,’ and on the other the ‘Declaration of Independence.’
‘The remainder of my body,’ he continues, ‘unless for anatomical purposes, to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare, that the weary wayfarer may rest, and innocent children play beneath its umbrageous branches rendered luxuriant by my remains.’
— Current Opinion, 1902
Before his death in 1923, Curtis Lloyd erected an enormous granite monument to himself in the Kentucky woods. One side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD BORN 1859 — DIED 60 OR MORE YEARS AFTERWARDS. THE EXACT NUMBER OF YEARS, MONTHS AND DAYS THAT HE LIVED NOBODY KNOWS AND NOBODY CARES.
The other side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD MONUMENT ERECTED IN 1922 BY HIMSELF FOR HIMSELF DURING HIS LIFE TO GRATIFY HIS OWN VANITY. WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!
World War I ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Each year at that moment, sunlight shining through the window of the Canadian War Museum illuminates the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.
In Gray, Maine, is a tombstone reading:
STRANGER — A SOLDIER OF THE LATE WAR. DIED 1862. ERECTED BY THE LADIES OF GRAY.
Lt. Charles Colley of the 10th Maine Volunteers had died that September at Alexandria, Va., and his parents had paid to have his remains embalmed and transported home. When they opened the casket, they found the body of a uniformed Confederate soldier. After some consternation the town interred him, and it commemorates the unknown soldier each Memorial Day. (Colley’s body arrived a week later and is buried 100 feet away.)
An epitaph in Keesville, N.Y., quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876:
HERE LIES A MAN OF GOOD REPUTE,
WHO WORE A NO. 16 BOOT.
‘TIS NOT RECORDED HOW HE DIED,
BUT SURE IT IS, THAT OPEN WIDE,
THE GATES OF HEAVEN MUST HAVE BEEN
TO LET SUCH MONSTROUS FEET WITHIN.
Charles Wallis’ Stories on Stone records the epitaph of Dr. Fred Roberts in Pine Log Cemetery, Brookland, Ark.:
OFFICE UP STAIRS.
An epitaph on a trout, near a pond in Blockley, England:
UNDER THE SOIL
THE OLD FISH DO LIE
20 YEARS HE LIVED
AND THEN DID DIE.
HE WAS SO TAME
HE WOULD COME AND
EAT OUT OF OUR HAND.
DIED APRIL 20, 1855.
AGED 20 YEARS.
Below: The German word for cobblestone translates literally as “headstone” — so artist Timm Ulrichs offered this “cobblestone” pavement:
PARISEAU, N. De, born in 1753; a celebrated victim of the ‘mistakes’ of the guillotine. Pariseau was director of the opera ballets at Paris, and ardently espoused the cause of the revolution in ‘La Feuille du Jour.’ He was arrested by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, and beheaded by mistake, instead of Parisot, a captain of the king’s guard.
— The Biographical Treasury, 1847
When Charlie Parker’s 2-year-old daughter Pree died of pneumonia on March 6, 1954, he was in Los Angeles fulfilling a week-long engagement at the Tiffany Club. His wife, Chan, sent a wire from New York to let him know that they had lost her, and received four telegrams in reply:
MY DARLING MY DAUGHTER’S DEATH SURPRISED ME MORE THAN IT DID YOU DON’T FULFILL FUNERAL PROCEEDINGS UNTIL I GET THERE I SHALL BE THE FIRST ONE TO WALK INTO OUR CHAPEL FORGIVE ME FOR NOT BEING THERE WITH YOU WHILE YOU ARE AT THE HOSPITAL YOURS MOST SINCERELY YOUR HUSBAND CHARLIE PARKER.
MY DARLING FOR GOD’S SAKE HOLD ON TO YOURSELF
MY DAUGHTER IS DEAD. I KNOW IT. I WILL BE THERE AS QUICK AS I CAN. MY NAME IS BIRD. IT IS VERY NICE TO BE OUT HERE. PEOPLE HAVE BEEN VERY NICE TO ME OUT HERE. I AM COMING IN RIGHT AWAY TAKE IT EASY. LET ME BE THE FIRST ONE TO APPROACH YOU. I AM YOUR HUSBAND. SINCERELY, CHARLIE PARKER.
He never forgave himself for being absent during Pree’s death. “Bird detached from things to save himself, which meant that in a way the sadness between them was very powerful,” recalled his stepdaughter, Kim. “I’ve seen very sad photographs of them … shortly after Pree’s death, and there’s just a complete space between them, and I think it was just the beginning of the end, really.” A year later he too was dead.
When Dutch army colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum died in 1880, he was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, Lady J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, knew that her Catholic faith destined her for a separate cemetery. So she contrived a solution: Before her death in 1888, she requested the burial plot abutting the colonel’s and asked that the tombstones “join hands” over the wall — so that the two of them could hold hands through eternity.
I hate you.
— Suicide note quoted in Marc Etkind, Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997
From the agony I have been through for no reason whatever I can only come to the logical conclusion that if there is a god that he is not so good as is made out.
— A young clerk’s suicide note, quoted in Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, 1987
Kids, if there are any errors in this letter, I did not proof it carefully.
— From the 1985 suicide note of Cleveland superintendent of schools Frederick Holliday, who shot himself in a high school stairwell on learning that the school board planned to oust him
In 1930, San Quentin death row inmate William Kogut removed one of the hollow steel legs from his cot, stuffed it with red pips torn from from several packs of playing cards, and soaked them with water. Then he plugged one end of the pipe with a broom handle, rested it on a kerosene heater, and held the open end against his head. The red ink contained enough nitrocellulose to cause an explosion that drove the card fragments into Kogut’s head, killing him.
His note to the warden said that he was punishing himself for the murder of Mayme Guthrie. “Do not blame my death on any one because I fixed everything myself,” he wrote. “I never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.”
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.)