In the late 1880s, the body of a 16-year-old girl was pulled from the Seine. She was apparently a suicide, as her body showed no marks of violence, but her beauty and her enigmatic smile led a Paris pathologist to order a plaster death mask of her face.
In the romantic atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe the girl’s face became an ideal of feminine beauty. The protagonist of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge writes, “The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two plaster masks beside his door. [One is] the face of the young drowned woman, which they took a cast of in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, because it smiled so deceptively, as if it knew.”
Ironically, in 1958 the anonymous girl’s features were used to model the first-aid mannequin Rescue Annie, on which thousands of students have practiced CPR. Though the girl’s identity remains a mystery, her face, it’s said, has become “the most kissed face of all time.”
In 1951 Colorado farmer Jim Gernhart held a rehearsal of his own funeral. He watched as eight pallbearers carried a casket from his home to a waiting hearse, then attended it to the local armory, where almost half of Burlington, Colo., turned out for a funeral sermon by the Rev. S.H. Mahaffey.
Gernhart also bought a $465 headstone and a cemetery lot, and the local newspaper even published an obituary. “Real nice funeral, ain’t it?” Gernhart remarked. “Does a man good to see so many people out to bury him.”
“All this buttoning and unbuttoning.”
— Anonymous 18th-century suicide note, cited in The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations
The grave of Arthur Haine in the City Cemetery [of Portland, Oregon], between 10th and 13th Streets, is marked by a stone of his own design and the epitaph, ‘Haine Haint.’ Haine, who died in 1907, left a will saying, ‘Having lived as an atheist I want to be buried like one — without any monkey business.’
— Federal Writers’ Project, Oregon Trail: The Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, 1939
These Flemish Words are on a very antient funeral Monument of whitish Marble, on which are engraved a Pair of Slippers of a very singular kind. Effen Uyt means Exactly. The Story is, that a Man tolerably rich, and who dearly loved good Eating, took it into his Head that he was only to live a certain Number of Years, and no longer. In this Whimsey he counted that if he spent so much a Year, his Estate and his Life would expire together. It happened by chance that he was not deceived in either of these Computations. He died precisely at the Time he had prescribed to himself in his Imagination, and had then brought his Fortune to such a Pass, that, after paying his Debts, he had nothing left but a Pair of Slippers. His Relations buried him creditably, and would have the Slippers carved on his Tomb, with the abovementioned Laconic Device.
— John Hackett, Select and Remarkable Epitaphs on Illustrious and Other Persons, in Several Parts of Europe, 1757
Epitaph of the eminent barrister Sir John Strange:
Here lies an honest lawyer,–
that is Strange.
From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
Can a man imagine himself witnessing his own funeral? Antony Flew writes:
The crux is that there is a world of difference between: on the one hand, imagining what it would be like to witness my own funeral; and, on the other hand, imagining what it would be like for me to witness my own funeral. … The question at issue is a question about possible pictures and possible captions. Everyone knows what picture fits the first caption. What picture is it which fits, and justifies, the second caption?
I can imagine what it’s like to be Napoleon. But can I imagine what it’s like for me to be Napoleon?
“Surely I can perfectly well imagine my own funeral, really my own funeral with my body in the coffin and not a substitute corpse or a weight of bricks; with me there watching it all, but invisible, intangible, a disembodied spirit? Well, yes, this seems all right — until someone asks the awkward question ‘Just how does all this differ from your imagining your own funeral without your being there at all (except as a corpse in the coffin)?'”
For out-and-out politeness commend us to Mr. Justice Graham, who when once presiding at the Old Bailey in the days when the law sent crowds to the gallows, had to sentence no less than sixteen prisoners to death. In reading out their names he inadvertently missed one — John Robins — and then with due solemnity exhorted them to prepare for their doom, and pronounced on each the sentence of death. The condemned left the dock, and his lordship’s attention was called to the fact that he had omitted to read John Robin’s name. ‘Bring him back,’ said the Judge. ‘By all means let John Robins step forward.’ Back came the unfortunate man, and Graham, addressing him in his singularly courteous manner, assured him that ‘the omission was purely accidental, and I ask your pardon for my mistake. I am very sorry, and can only add that you will be hanged with the rest.’
— Law Notes, March 1905
The four young stars of Rebel Without a Cause all died prematurely:
- James Dean was killed in an auto accident at 24.
- Natalie Wood drowned at 43.
- Nick Adams overdosed at 37.
- Sal Mineo was murdered at 37.
At Frank Sinatra’s funeral, friends and family members were invited to place items of personal significance into his coffin. Reportedly these included:
- several Tootsie Rolls
- a pack of Black Jack chewing gum
- a roll of wild cherry Life Savers
- a ring engraved with the word Dream
- a mini-bottle of Jack Daniel’s
- a pack of Camel cigarettes and a Zippo lighter
- 10 dimes
Why 10 dimes? “He never wanted to get caught not able to make a phone call,” his daughter Tina told Larry King.
The son of William Henry Harrison, John Scott Harrison, served two terms in Congress but spent the rest of his life quietly on his farm in Ohio. At his interment there in 1878 it was discovered that an adjoining grave had recently been robbed, so Harrison’s son and nephew traveled to Cincinnati to seek the missing body.
They visited several medical schools but found nothing, and were about to give up when they noticed a tautened rope leading into chute in the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College. On turning the windlass they brought up a naked body and discovered to their horror that it was Harrison himself, his body stolen somehow from a guarded brick vault less than 24 hours after his burial.
By a curious further coincidence, Harrison’s son Benjamin himself eventually grew up to be president, making John Scott Harrison the only man in history to be both son and father of a U.S. president. But no one knows who stole his body, how, or how it came to be suspended in that dissecting room.
But the superstitious noted that the death of Prince Albert Victor on a Thursday broke a remarkable spell or curse which had hung over the present royal family of England for more than a century and three-quarters — bringing about the death of all the prominent members of that family on Saturdays. William III died Saturday, March 18, 1702; Queen Anne died Saturday, August 1, 1714; George I died Saturday, June 10, 1727; George II died Saturday, October 25, 1760; George III died Saturday, January 29, 1820; George IV died Saturday, June 26, 1830; the Duchess of Kent died Saturday, March 16, 1861; the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria and grandfather of the recent deceased Prince Albert Victor, died Saturday, December 14, 1861; Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, Victoria’s second daughter, and sister of Albert, died Saturday, December 14, 1878. The shadows which overhung the late prince’s life are said to have been darkened by a superstitious fear which caused him to keep close in-doors on Saturdays.
— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
In 1771, two heirs, a Mr. Pigot and a Mr. Codrington, made a wager as to whose father would die first. A friend computed the odds based on each father’s age, and when Codrington objected that these were unfair, the Earl of March agreed to stand in his place. They agreed that Pigot would pay March 500 guineas if his own father died before Sir William Codrington, and March would pay Pigot 1,600 guineas if Codrington died first.
Unfortunately, old Pigot was already dead — he had died at 2 a.m. that very morning. On learning this, his son refused to pay the wager, contending that the contract was void, “for there was no possibility of the defendant’s winning, his father being then actually dead, and therefore he ought not to lose.” But March sued him and won.
“It was sneakingly mean and inconsiderate in the old man to die in this underhand way, and thus subject his son, the companion of young noblemen, to the mortification of having bet against a dead certainty,” writes Irving Browne in Humorous Phases of the Law (1876). “But it was what you might expect of old Pigot, for the record does not show that he was of noble blood, and so we infer he was plebeian, and knew no better.”
A servant maid was sent by her mistress to Ben Johnson, for an epitaph on her departed husband. She could only afford to pay half-a-guinea, which Ben refused, saying he never wrote one for less than double that sum; but recollecting he was going to dine that day at a tavern, he ran down stairs and called her back. ‘What was your master’s name?’–‘Jonathan Fiddle, sir.’–‘When did he die?’–‘June the 22nd, sir.’ Ben took a small piece of paper, and wrote with his pencil, while standing on the stairs, the following:–
On the twenty-second of June,
Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.
— Horatio Edward Norfolk, Gleanings in Graveyards, 1861
Last words of executed murderers:
- George Appel (1928): “Well, folks, you’ll soon see a baked Appel.”
- James W. Rodgers (1960): (asked for a last request) “Why, yes — a bulletproof vest.”
- Frederick Wood (1963): “Gentlemen, you are about to see the effects of electricity upon Wood.”
- James French (1966): “I have a terrific headline for you in the morning: ‘French Fries’.”
- Jimmy Glass (1987): “I’d rather be fishing.”
In 1856, English murderer William Palmer stood on the gallows and asked, “Are you sure it’s safe?”
In 1728, at age 23, Ben Franklin composed his own epitaph:
The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an old Book
Its Contents torn out
And shrift of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost;
For it will, (as he believ’d) appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and corrected,
By the Author.
Fifty-six years later, six years before his death in 1790, he wrote these lines:
If Life’s compared to a Feast,
Near Fourscore Years I’ve been a Guest;
I’ve been regaled with the best,
And feel quite satisfyd.
‘Tis time that I retire to Rest;
Landlord, I thank you! — Friends, Good Night.
If you’re not doing anything next spring, head to Nederland, Colo., to celebrate Frozen Dead Guy Days, a three-day festival commemorating Bredo Morstoel, whose body is packed in dry ice in a Tuff Shed in the hills above town.
Bredo’s grandson Trygve Bauge imported the corpse from Norway in 1989 and stored it in liquid nitrogen; when Trygve was deported in 1993 and his mother evicted from her home, local businesses pitched in to keep the body preserved.
The annual festival includes coffin races (above), a hearse parade, lookalike contests, an ice-carving demonstration, documentaries (Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed and Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed), frozen turkey bowling, showshoe races, and snow sculpture contests. Nearby Glacier Ice Cream has even concocted a commemorative flavor, Frozen Dead Guy.
Bredo has been dead now for 20 years; psychics report he’s amused by all this but doing fine.
Periander ordered two young men to go out by night along a certain road, to kill the first man they met there, and to bury him.
Then he ordered four more men to find those two and kill them. And he sent an even greater number to murder those four.
Periander then set off down the road himself to wait for them.
In this way he ensured that the location of his grave would never be known.
Honest Jack Fuller, who is buried in a pyramidal mausoleum in Brightling churchyard, in Sussex, gave as his reason for being thus disposed of, his unwillingness to be eaten by his relations after this fashion: ‘The worms would eat me, the ducks would eat the worms, and my relations would eat the ducks.’
— John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875
A gentleman passing through the United States, on the Union and Pacific Railroad, was one morning telling the guard about a relative of his lately committing suicide. ‘Very sad, indeed,’ replied the guard, ‘but the most determined attempt at suicide happened the other day down Sacramento (California) way. A young man went down to the beach when the tide was out, with a long pole, sharpened at one end, and a hook in the other; he had also a rope with a noose in it, a phial of poison, a pistol, and a box of matches. He drove the pole into the sand, and climbed up it until the tide had risen high enough to drown him, when he swallowed the poison, set his trousers on fire, put the noose round his neck, and then fired his pistol. The bullet, instead of entering his forehead, grazed the top of his head and went through the rope; the rope, being weakened, snapped, and dropped the unfortunate man into the sea, which, of course, put the fire out, and swallowing some sea water made him vomit the poison, and in two or three minutes he was washed ashore alive, and only suffering slightly from the effects of his immersion.’
— Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 3, 1881
Archimedes wanted no other epitaph than a sphere inscribed within a cylinder — he had determined the sphere’s relative volume and considered this his greatest achievement.
Henry Perigal’s tomb in Essex displays his graphic proof of the Pythagorean theorem (left).
Gauss wanted to be buried under a heptadecagon, which he’d shown can be constructed with compass and straightedge. (The stonemason demurred, fearing he’d produce only a circle.)
And Jakob Bernoulli opted for a logarithmic spiral and the words Eadem mutata resurgo—the motto means “I shall arise the same though changed.”
In September 1955, James Dean met Alec Guinness outside an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. He introduced himself and showed Guinness his brand-new Porsche 550 Spyder. “The sports car looked sinister to me,” Guinness wrote in his autobiography:
Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it.’ I looked at my watch. ‘It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’
Dean laughed. One week later he collided head-on with a Ford coupe outside Cholame, Calif. He was pronounced dead 6 days and 20 hours after Guinness’ prediction.
The inventor of the Pringles can was buried in a Pringles can.
Fredric Baur invented the crush-resistant canister in 1966 and was so proud that he said he’d like to be buried in one. It remained a family joke for years, but when Baur died last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s, his children stopped at a Walgreen’s on their way to the funeral home, bought a can of Pringles, and buried a portion of their father’s ashes in the bright red can.
“My siblings and I briefly debated what flavor to use,” Larry Baur told Time magazine, “but I said, ‘Look, we need to use the original.'”
In 1907, Massachusetts physician Duncan MacDougall conceived a singular experiment. When he observed that a patient at his Haverhill hospital was nearing death, he installed him in a specially constructed bed in his office and measured his weight both before and after death. With six such weighings he determined that humans lose between 0.5 and 1.5 ounces at death.
“Is the soul substance?” he wrote. “It would seem to me to be so. … Here we have experimental demonstration that a substance capable of being weighed does leave the human body at death.”
Similar experiments with 15 dogs showed no change in mass, proving, he decided, that dogs have no souls. MacDougall’s findings were written up briefly in the New York Times and occasioned a flurry of correspondence in American Medicine, but after that they were largely forgotten. But who knows? Perhaps he was right.