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)
In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.
He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”
An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.
On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”
Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.
Grave marker in Folsom, N.M.:
In honored memory of Sarah J. Rooke
Who perished in the flood waters
of the Dry Cimarron at Folsom
New Mexico, August 27, 1908
while at her switchboard warning
others of the danger. With heroic
devotion she glorified her calling
by sacrificing her own life that
others might live.
Old South Cemetery, Montague, Mass.:
In Memory of Mr. Elijah Bardwell
who died Janry 26th 1786 in ye 27th
Year of his Age having but a few days
surviv’d ye fatal Night when he was
flung from his Horse & drawn by ye Stirrup
26 rods along ye path as appear’d by ye place
where his hat was found & where he had
Spent ye whole following severe cold night
treading ye Snow in a Small Circle.
Emily Spear, died 1901, age 64, Glendale Cemetery, Cardington, Ohio:
Lizzie Angell, died 1932, age 83, Forest Hill Cemetery, East Derry, N.H.:
I don’t know how to die.
Jennie E. Wilson, died 1882, age 29, College Hill Cemetery, Lebanon, Ill.:
She was more to me
Than I expected.
Speaking of unfortunate names …
From Cedar Grove Cemetery, Patchogue, N.Y.
“People always grow up like their names,” wrote George Orwell. “It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric.”
Suppose we find some coherent way to formulate the view that a person’s death is a misfortune for him because it deprives him of goods. Then we face another Epicurean question: when is it a misfortune for him? It seems wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him while he is still alive — for at such times he is not yet dead and death has not yet deprived him of anything. It seems equally wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him after he is dead — for at such times he does not exist. How can he suffer misfortunes then?
— Fred Feldman, “Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death,” The Philosophical Review, April 1991
The Roman senator who dies as a result of plunging a dagger into his heart commits suicide. He kills himself. But what about the twentieth-century suicide who places his head on the railway line and is crushed to death by the train he normally catches each morning to the office? Wasn’t he killed by the train? Then did he kill himself into the bargain too? Exactly what was it that killed him? What do you have to have done in order to count as having killed yourself?
— T.S. Champlin, Reflexive Paradoxes, 1988
Through this inscription I wish to enter my dying protest against what is called the Democratic Party. I have watched it closely since the days of Jackson and know that all the misfortunes of our Nation have come to it through the so called party. Therefore beware of this party of treason.
— N. Grigsby (1812-1890), Attica, Kan.
He believed that nothing but the success of the Democratic Party would ever save this Union.
— Elisha Bowman (1832-1865), Pekin, Ind.
The Family of Robert T. Hallenbeck
None of us ever voted for
Roosevelt or Truman
— Elgin, Minn.
Kind friends I’ve
Cast your vote for
— B.H. Norris (1849-1900), Montgomery City, Mo.
Sacred to the memory of Henry Devine
a native of Ireland,
who died in Port Gibson
November 7th, 1844. Aged 32 years.
During the protracted illness which preceded
his death the deceased often expressed a wish
only to live long enough to vote for Henry
Clay for the Presidency. His wish was granted.
The last act of his life was to vote the Whig
ticket having done which he declared that he
— Wintergreen Cemetery, Port Gibson, Miss.