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.
The following is an account of the post-mortem examination of the body of Mr. Robert Cocking, aged sixty-one, who fell with a suicidal machine called a parachute, from the cord of a balloon which ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, on the 24th of July, 1837. The height which the balloon had reached when the parachute commenced its descent, is stated to have been 5000 feet. The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder-exciting means,– an end which, without the motive, was more effectually attained, by the crushing of the parachute in the air as it dropped:–
On the right side.–The second, third, fourth, and fifth ribs broken near their junction, with their cartilages. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth broken also near their junction with the vertebrae. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs also broken at their greatest convexity.
On the left side.–The second, third, fourth, and sixth ribs broken near their cartilages, and also near their angles.
The clavicle on the right side fractured at the junction of the external with the middle third.
The second lumbar vertebra fractured through its body; the transverse processes of several of the lumbar vertebrae broken.
Comminuted fracture and separation of the bones of the pelvis at the sacro-iliac symphyses.
The ossa nasi fractured.
The right ankle dislocated inwards; the astragalus and os calcis fractured.
The viscera of the head, chest, and abdomen free from any morbid appearances.
F.C. Finch, G. Macilwain, W. Maugham, T. Greenwood, W. Thompson, surgeons
— Lancet, Aug. 5, 1837
Last words of executed criminals:
- “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Don’t hang me! I can’t die! I’m not ready to die! I don’t want to die!” — North Carolina burglar Henry F. Andrews, 1879
- “Where is my little boy? Look at me, my son, and take warning.” — Louisiana murderer Edward Rector, 1884
- “What time is it? I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.” — Wyoming murderer John Owens, 1886
- “These are for my sister [taking off her eyeglasses]. Please see that she gets them.” — Vermont murderer Mary Mabel Rogers, 1905
- “They can’t kill a smile!” — Montana murderer Harrison Gibson, smiling, 1917
- “I have something of interest to tell –” — California murderer Paul Rowland, cut off by his hanging, 1929
- “Make it snappy.” — California murderer Charles H. Simpson, 1931
- “You might get me a gas mask.” — Arizona murderer Jack Sullivan, 1936
- “So long.” — Utah robber and murderer James Joseph Roedl, 1945
- “Kiss my ass.” — John Wayne Gacy, to a prison guard, 1994
- “Merry Christmas.” — Virginia rapist and murderer Lem Tuggle, 1996
Before his lethal injection in 2007, Arizona murderer Robert Comer said, “Go Raiders.”
A curious case has recently been decided in England. A Mr. and Mrs. Hambling were both killed by a falling building. The husband was taken from the ruins quite dead, while the body of his wife was warm. The question was raised whether it could be safely presumed that the wife survived her husband, as this would cause a variation in the distribution of the property. The court decided against the supposition.
— Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, June 1859
“If some persons died, and others did not die, death would indeed be a terrible affliction.” — Jean de la Bruyère
Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.
Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.
He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”
Uninspired last words:
- “Peter, take good care of my horse.” — Winfield Scott
- “Have you brought the checkbook, Alfred?” — Samuel Butler
- “Take away those pillows — I shall need them no more.” — Lewis Carroll
- “You heard me, Mike.” — John Barrymore
- “I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time.” — Chekhov
- “I can’t sleep.” — James M. Barrie
- “Moose. Indian.” — Thoreau
- “I’ve never felt better.” — Douglas Fairbanks
- “The nourishment is palatable.” — Millard Fillmore
Told jokingly that he had drunk a dose of ink by mistake, Sydney Smith said, “Then bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house.”
According to tradition, barristers wear black because they’re still in mourning for Queen Mary II, who died in 1694.
Or, properly speaking, they adopted black on Mary’s death at the wish of William III and have retained it as a convenient costume ever since.
Mary is most commonly cited; sometimes another Stuart queen is named. Sir Frederick Pollock, who served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer for more than 25 years, famously joked that the whole bar went into mourning in the time of Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) and never came out again.
He wrote, “I have always been told that formerly the Bar wore, in Court, coats, &c. of any colour under the gown, which also need not have been black; but that on the death of Queen Anne the Bar went into mourning, and since then every barrister has generally worn black.”
John T—-, Schoolmaster.
May he be punished as often as he punished us,
He was a hard old shell.
He said the Lord’s Prayer every morning.
May the Lord forgive him as often as he forgave us.
That was never.
We his scholars rear this stone over his ashes
Though they are not worth it.
We are glad his reign is over.
— Massachusetts tombstone, quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876
“He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.” — Marcus Aurelius
Another gentleman, mentioned in the text-books … seemed to have a ruling passion against waste, which the court respected. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings; that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. In a letter attached to the will the testator said: ‘The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.’
— Basil Jones, “Eccentricities of Sane Testators,” Law Notes, November 1908
New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Cemetery contains 16,000 headstones and only one statue, a life-size sandstone carving of Army private Dennis O’Leary, who died in 1901 at age 23.
Legend has it that O’Leary was stationed at lonely Fort Wingate, where he carved the statue himself, inscribed the death date, and shot himself. Military records show that a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis on this date. But then who carved the statue, and why?
Gertrude Walker died in 1893 at age 4 and lies in Lt. John Walker Cemetery near White Horn, Tenn. Her gravestone reads:
GONE TO BE AN ANGLE
John Young, who died in 1836, lies in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Staten Island, New York. His reads:
THOSE THAT KNEW HIM BEST DEPLORED HIM MOST
The epitaph of James Ewins of East Derry, N.H., reads:
MY GLASS IS RUM
The stonecutter cut an M in place of an N.
(From Charles Langworthy Wallis, Stories on Stone, 1954)