The tombstone of Constanze Mozart’s second husband calls him “the husband of Mozart’s widow.”
While lying on his deathbed in 1816, Welsh judge George Hardinge received a bill from his London stationers, Tripeaux and Co. It was addressed to “Mr. Justice Hardinge, if living; or his executors, if dead.” He wrote back:
Messrs. Tripeaux, what is fear’d by you,
Alas! the melancholy circumstance is true,
That I am dead; and more afflicting still,
My legal assets cannot pay your bill.
To think of this, I am almost broken hearted,
Insolvent I, this earthly life departed;
Dear Messrs. T., I am yours without a farthing,
For executors and self,
He died three hours later.
In 1952, to “indulge a whim of a peculiar nature,” retired funeral director David H. Brown built a house out of 500,000 empty embalming-fluid bottles.
Situated on the shores of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, the cloverleaf-shaped house occupies 1,200 square feet, including two bedrooms, a fireplace, a kitchen, and a terrace.
The bottles, together, weigh 250 tons.
On my deathbed I exact a promise from you. Then I die, and you ignore the promise. Most of us would feel that this is wrong, but why? If I no longer exist, then who is wronged by your omission?
Similarly, it seems wrong to disparage the dead, or to mistreat a corpse. But why? Can we have a moral obligation to a person who doesn’t exist? Do the dead have rights?
“The dead, if they exist at all, are so much dust,” writes philosopher George Pitcher. “How is it possible for so much dust to be wronged?”
“If Socrates died, he died either when he was alive or when he was dead. He did not die when he was alive — for then the same man would have been both living and dead. Nor when he was dead; for then he would have been dead twice. Therefore Socrates did not die.”
— Sextus Empiricus, Against the Physicists
In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.
Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:
When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”
Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:
I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’
They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’
The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.
In 1798 Horatio Nelson’s navy defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who helped to destroy the French flagship L’Orient, sent Nelson a macabre gift:
Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L’Orient’s Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies — but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much obliged servant,
Nelson was indeed buried in it after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
But many observers have commented on what seems to be the fact that fear plays a much smaller part than we should think it must in the life of an animal who lives dangerously. Terror he can know, and perhaps he knows it frequently. But it seems to last only a little longer than the immediate danger it helps him to avoid, instead of lingering, as in the human being it does, until it becomes a burden and a threat. The frightened bird resumes his song as soon as danger has passed, and so does the frightened rabbit his games. It is almost as though they knew that ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.’
— Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons, 1949
Suicide notes left by people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, gathered by Marc Etkind for Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997:
“This is where I get off.” — Harold W., the first suicide, three months after the bridge opened, 1937
“Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.” — 49-year-old John Thomas D.
“I am sorry … I want to keep dad company.” — 24-year-old Charles G. Jr., whose father had jumped four days earlier
“Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition.” — Steven H., the 500th person to jump
“Why do they leave this so easy for suicide? Barbed wires would save a lot of lives.” — A 72-year-old man
“I and my daughter have committed suicide.” — A man who jumped with his 5-year-old daughter
“Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris” — A member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. This was a fake — he turned up a year later selling Bibles in Houston.
One person leapt with $36 in his mouth. “What he meant by this gesture is open to interpretation.”
“Obvious reasons for the bridge’s popularity are that it is easy and effective,” Etkind writes, “but there must be something more, for many suicides travel over the equally effective and accessible Oakland Bridge just to jump off the Golden Gate.”