Dark Days

On June 17, 1794, Charles-Henri Sanson, high executioner of the First French Republic, guillotined more than 50 “conspirators” in 28 minutes, including an 18-year-old girl who seemed so fragile that “a tiger would have pitied her.” That night he wrote in his diary:

Terrible day. The guillotine devoured 54. My strength went, my heart failed me. That evening, sitting down to dinner, I told my wife that I could see spots of blood on my napkin. … I don’t lay claim to any sensibility I don’t possess: I have seen too often and too close up the sufferings and death of my fellow human beings to be easily affected. If what I feel is not pity it must be caused by an attack of nerves; perhaps it is the hand of God punishing my cowardly pliancy to what so little resembles that justice which I was born to serve.

(Quoted in Frances Larson, Severed, 2014.)


Entries in the keyword index of C. Bernard Ruffin’s Last Words (1995), a collection of the final utterances of famous people:

  • bored: I’m b. 98; I am b. of it all 393
  • comfortable: I am c. 154; perfectly c. 307; very c. 549; quite c. 752; most c. and pleasant life 873; c. enough to die 1223
  • cry/crying: don’t c. 498, 712, 1397; you mustn’t c. 654; nothing to c. about 654; do not c. 957; why are you c. 1152; you’re not c. 1648; you cannot c. 1651; departed with a sad c. 1700
  • damn/damned: d. it! 463, 883; can’t see a d. thing 580; God d. it! 645, 814; God d. the whole friggin’ world 645; God d. you! 719, 733; lot of d. foolery! 907; so d. much left 1137; a god-d. hotel room 1398; your d. lies 1443; all the d.-fool things you do 1469; I’m so d. tired 1623; God d. 1836; d. tired 1858; take the d. thing away 1960
  • dark: why is it so d. 352; too d. 493, 1425; leap in the d. 898; the d. way of the Church 936; life is d. to me 1192; laboring from daylight to d. 1251; long, d. road 1428; d. o’er the way 1499; go home in the d. 1509
  • grieve: do not g. for me 46; it is wrong to g. about it 10; don’t g. 146; do not g. 207, 1453; g. not for my death 592; why should you g., daughter 899
  • sad: s. that I have to leave 118; you mustn’t be s. 654; it’s s. to live on a Monday 1535; parted with a s. cry 1700
  • worry: don’t w. about me 194; don’t w. 455, 777, 1515; I am not w. 782; do not w. 795; does not w. me at all 1152; nothing to w. about 1167 that does not w. me 1418; don’t you w. about anything 1727

Minutes before his death, retired Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter told an aide visiting him in the hospital, “I hope I don’t spoil your Washington’s birthday.”

Last Words

On Sept. 8, 1880, an explosion tore through the Seaham Colliery, a coal mine in County Durham in the North of England, filling both shafts with debris and trapping scores of men in the burning seams. Most of the 164 dead were found where they had been working, suggesting that death had come quickly, but some of those farther from the shafts appear to have survived for hours or even longer in pockets of air — the oil in some of their lamps was exhausted. Some of these men had had time to leave messages to those who might find them:

September 8 1880
E.Hall and J.Lonsdale died at half-past 3 in the morning.W.Murray and W.Morris and James Clarke visited the rest on half-past nine in the morn and all living in the incline,
Yours truly,
W.Murray, Master-Shifter

Five o’ clock, we have been praying to God

The Lord has been with us, we are all ready for heaven – Ric Cole, half past 2 o’ clock Thursday

Bless the Lord we have had a jolly prayer meeting, every man ready for glory. Praise the Lord. Sign.R.Cole

Dear Margaret,
There was 40 of us altogether at 7am. Some was singing hymns but my thoughts was on my little Michael that him and I would meet in heaven at the same time. Oh Dear wife, God save you and the children, and pray for me … Dear wife, Farewell. My last thoughts are about you and the children. Be sure and learn the children to pray for me. Oh what an awful position we are in ! Michael Smith, 54 Henry Street

The last had been scratched on a tin water bottle with a rusty nail by Michael Smith, who had left his dying infant son to go to work in the mine that morning. The son died on the same day.

(From Durham Records Online.)



In 1805 a disturbed Venice shoemaker named Matthew Lovat nearly managed to crucify himself. From William Wood Seymour’s The Cross in Tradition, History, and Art, 1898:

Having prepared a cross, he stripped himself naked except for a girdle about his loins. Fearing that he would not be able to attach himself securely to the cross, he covered the lower part with a net, extending from the suppedaneum to the transverse. Having introduced himself into this, he next drove a nail through the palm of his right hand by striking it on the floor until the point appeared on the outside. He then drove a nail through both feet, fastening them to the wood. Tying himself around the waist to the cross, he next wounded himself in the side with a knife. He was yet in the room: to show himself to the people required the exercise of much fortitude and resolution. The foot of the cross having been placed upon the window-sill, he drew himself forward by means of his fingers pressing on the floor, until the lower end, overbalancing the rest, the cross fell outside of the house and hung by ropes previously fixed to sustain it. He then fastened the right hand, already pierced by the nail, to its proper place, but after driving the nail through the left hand he was unable to affix it. This took place at eight o’clock in the morning. As soon as he was seen he was taken down and carried to the hospital where his wounds were completely cured.

I haven’t been able to learn why he thought this was necessary. After an earlier attempt was prevented, “Being interrogated repeatedly as to the motive for his self-crucifixion, he maintained an obstinate silence, except, that he once said to his brother, that that day was the festival of St. Matthew, and that he could give no farther explanation.” After the 1805 attempt, he would say only, “The pride of man must be mortified, it must expire on the cross.” He starved himself to death in an asylum shortly afterward.



Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

— Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949

Looking Ahead


On July 17, 1915, Winston Churchill sealed the following message in an envelope marked “To be sent to Mrs. Churchill in the event of my death”:

Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident & not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling I have been happy, & you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be. If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in life, cherish the children, guard my memory. God bless you.

Three decades later, on his 75th birthday, he told the New York Times Magazine, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

Going in Style

In Ghana, coffins can be works of art. The tradition is particularly strong among the Ga people of the Greater Accra Region, whose kings were historically borne on figurative palanquins that bore the shapes of their family totems to ensure protection by the associated spirits.

Modern carpenters extended this tradition in the 20th century, dropping the spiritual function and expanding their inspirations to remember the dead one’s occupation or personality. In 1951 two carpenters buried their 91-year-old grandmother in a coffin shaped like an airliner because she had said she often daydreamed of flying. Today businessmen are often buried in coffins shaped like luxury Mercedes, and other recent designs include birds, fish, cars, shoes, butterflies, crabs, pineapples, lions, pigs, mobile phones, books, fire engines, toothpaste tubes, wrenches, cheetahs, eagles, and pianos.

The National Razor


Last words at the guillotine, collected by Daniel Gerould in Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (1992):

  • The Comte de Sillery, who was lame, had trouble climbing the steps. When executioner Charles-Henri Sanson told him to hurry, he said, “Can’t you wait a minute? After all, it is I who am going to die. You have plenty of time.”
  • As he neared the scaffold, someone suggested to astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly that he put on a coat. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you afraid I might catch cold?”
  • A man named Vigié sang the “Marseillaise” at the top of his lungs as he ascended the steps and continued until the blade fell.
  • When an assistant moved to remove his boots, Philippe Égalité suggested, “They’ll be much easier to remove afterward.”
  • The Duc de Châtelet attempted suicide by cutting his veins with a piece of broken glass and had to be carried to the tumbril. When Sanson offered to dress his wounds, he said, “Don’t bother, I will be losing the rest of it just now.”
  • Journalist Jean-Louis Carra told the executioner, “It annoys me to die. I should have liked to see what follows.”
  • General Baron de Biron was executed on the last day of the year. He said, “I will soon arrive in the next world — just in time to wish all my friends there a happy new year!”
  • Chrétien Malesherbes asked leave to finish winding his watch before Sanson began his duties.
  • When the executioner told Giuseppe Fieschi to put on his coat to keep from shivering, he said, “I shall be a lot colder when they bury me.”
  • Georges Danton told the executioner, “Show my head to the people. It’s worth looking at!”

Catching sight of the statue of liberty opposite the scaffold, Madame Roland cried, “Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”


Ballerina Anna Pavlova was famous for creating The Dying Swan, a four-minute solo ballet depicting the last moments in the life of a swan, after the cello solo “Le Cygne” in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux. She performed the role some 4,000 times; American critic Carl Van Vechten called it “the most exquisite specimen of [Pavlova’s] art which she has yet given to the public.”

Two days after Pavlova’s death in 1931, the orchestra at London’s Apollo Theater paused between selections and began to play “The Death of the Swan.” Dance writer Philip J.S. Richardson recorded what came next:

The curtain went up and disclosed an empty, darkened stage draped in grey hangings, with the spotlight playing on someone who was not there. The large audience rose to its feet and stood in silence while the tune which will forever be associated with Anna Pavlova was played.

“It was an unforgettable moment,” he wrote.

Nullius in Bonis


In the early 1900s, a train company left a coffin in the rain, resulting in “mutilation” of the corpse. The widow sought damages, which raised a poignant question: Who owns a corpse? An earlier case had held that once it’s buried a corpse belongs to the ground; a person who dug it up improperly would be guilty merely of trespass. But another case had deemed a corpse “quasi-property”: It may belong to no one, but certainly the kin have an interest in it. Joseph Henry Lumpkin of the Georgia Supreme Court wrote:

Death is unique. It is unlike aught else in its certainty and its incidents. A corpse in some respects is the strangest thing on earth. A man who but yesterday breathed and thought and walked among us has passed away. Something has gone. The body is left still and cold, and is all that is visible to mortal eye of the man we knew. Around it cling love and memory. Beyond it may reach hope. It must be laid away. And the law — that rule of action which touches all human things — must touch also this thing of death. It is not surprising that the law relating to this mystery of what death leaves behind cannot be precisely brought within the letter of all the rules regarding corn, lumber and pig iron.

The court ruled in favor of the widow, and this view is widely held today: The survivors have the right to take possession of a body and dispose of it.