David Bruce: Anecdotes About Death

• In the early 20th century, a French landscape painter named Andre Marcellin decided to branch out into portraits. He painted the portrait of a banker, and a few days after the painting was finished, the banker died. He painted the portrait of a woman, and a few days after the painting was finished, the woman died. He painted the portrait of a friend, and a few days after the painting was finished, the friend died. After that, he declined to paint any more portraits for five years. Then he met a woman and became engaged to her. She insisted that he paint her portrait, even though he explained that his portraits were cursed. Eventually he gave in because she told him that she would not marry him unless he painted her portrait. A few days after the painting was finished, she died. Soon afterward, Mr. Marcellin painted his last portrait: a portrait of himself. A few days after the painting was finished, he died.

• On Dec. 23, 1849, in St. Petersburg, 27-year-old Feodor Dostoyevsky was scheduled to die because he had advocated civil liberties such as freedom from censorship in his native Russia – something that the czar did not want to allow. The executioners took him and his fellow advocates for civil liberties to a firing squad, and they prepared to die. Before the firing squad could shoot, a messenger on horseback arrived with a last-minute reprieve from the czar – the sentences of the “radicals” had been changed from death to hard labor. When Mr. Dostoyevsky died, he was most likely unaware that the whole scene had been a setup. The czar had never meant for Mr. Dostoyevsky and the others to die; he had always intended for them to be sentenced to hard labor. The czar had created the scene to show first, his power, and second, his mercy.

• Robert Louis Stevenson based the title characters of his “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” on William Brodie, a Scottish deacon and cabinetmaker in Edinburgh who led two lives. During the day, he was a respected citizen; at night, he was a thief and a blackguard. Eventually, he was caught and sentenced to be hung until dead. However, he made a plan for escaping the gallows. He placed a silver tube in his throat so that he could continue to breathe even while dangling from a rope. Also, he bribed the hangman to hang him with a short rope so that his neck would not break. Finally, he hired a French doctor to bring him to after the hanging. Unfortunately for him, his scheme didn’t work. The French doctor was unable to revive him, and Mr. Brodie’s dual career came to an end.

• Weber and Fields (Joseph Weber and Lew Fields) were an early vaudeville comedy team. Mr. Weber’s family had immigrated to the United States from Poland. They almost took a ship from Liverpool, but missed it. That ship sank, and everyone on board drowned. When they did take a ship to the United States, the youngest child – who was only an infant – died. They did not want the infant to be buried at sea in shark-infested waters, so Mrs. Weber kept the dead infant with her and pretended to be feeding it. Once they arrived in America, the first thing they did was to have a funeral.

• Andy Warhol occasionally used an impersonator, Alan Midgette, to stand in for him when he didn’t feel like giving a lecture. After Andy died, Mr. Midgette would occasionally impersonate him at parties. Andy’s friends, who of course knew that Andy was dead, would tell Mr. Midgette, “Oh, Andy, we’re so glad you’re back.” Chances are, Andy would have approved. He hated to admit that someone he liked had died; instead, he would say that they had gone shopping. And after his mother died, if anyone asked him how she was, he would say that she was fine but didn’t get out much.

• When she was a young woman, Edna St. Vincent Millay started swimming in the ocean toward what she thought was a small island. The “island” was further away than she had thought, but she persisted in swimming toward it. Unfortunately, when she arrived, exhausted, at the “island,” she discovered that it was merely a mass of seaweed. Fortunately, she managed to swim back to land, although she feared that she would drown. This experience may have influenced the images of death and rebirth that appear in such poems of hers as “Renascence.”

• Rabbi Rabinowitz, who was both poor and pious, lived above a grocery store in New York City. To let people know where he lived, a sign hung outside the grocery store. When the good rabbi died, he was given a decent funeral, but not enough money was available for a tombstone. Therefore, members of the rabbi’s congregation used the sign from the grocery store as a gravestone: “Rabbi Rabinowitz is upstairs.”

• Amelia Earhart flew airplanes at a time when that was dangerous; therefore, at various times in her life, such as immediately before attempting to become the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, she wrote “popping-off” letters to her family and friends. These were letters that would be delivered to her family and friends if she died in the attempt to set a new record.

• In New England, a tourist saw an elderly man tending a ceremony. She asked him, “Do people often die in this town?” The elderly man gruffly replied, “No, they die only once.” Trying again, the tourist asked him, “Do a lot of people die in this town?” The elderly man gruffly replied, “Yes, all of them do.”

• Traditionally, griots of Western and Central Africa traveled throughout the territory, telling stories and singing songs and conveying news of a political and personal nature. Such griots learned huge amounts of information, thus arose the proverb, “Whenever a griot dies, a library dies.”

• Johnny Carson’s final show, “Funny Moments and a Final Farewell,” was shown on 22 May 1992. The final image shown as he walked off the set at the end of the show was a photograph of a sunset. It was taken by his son Rick, who had died in an automobile accident in 1991.

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