David Bruce: Anecdotes About Death

In November of 1778, John Henderson (1747-1785) was playing Falstaff in Shakespeare’sHenry IV, Part 1.” The previous Wednesday, a nobleman had died in a duel over a quarrel about gambling, shocking the society of Bath. Mr. Henderson spoke Falstaff’s lines, “What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? A trim reckoning. Who hath it?” Here Mr. Henderson paused, and then he said, “He that died on Wednesday!” These words created a sensation. Many in the audience felt that he had added the words to Shakespeare’s text, but he had delivered them exactly as Shakespeare wrote them.

In the old days, before modern medicine developed, people had lots of children because they expected that some of the children would die. They were knowledgeable about death, having seen it so often, and so they accepted it. Artist Grandma Moses had 10 children, but five died at birth or soon after. One daughter, Anna, collapsed during a Christmas party at age 37, and died a few days afterward. Before dying, she promised her daughter a birthday party. Grandma Moses first gave a funeral for her daughter, and then she gave a birthday party for her granddaughter.

African-American tennis great Arthur Ashe died of AIDS, which he contracted through a blood transfusion. In an ESPN television interview in which discussed the cruel death that lay ahead for Mr. Ashe, interviewer Roy Firestone asked him if he ever wondered, “Why me?” Mr. Ashe replied, “Why not me?” This is exactly the right thing to answer. The AIDS virus doesn’t care who you are. It doesn’t care about your race, your age, your sex, your religion or lack of it, or your wealth or lack of it. If it can take over your body, it will.

Ed and Dora — a couple of distant relatives of children’s mystery writer Joan Lowery Nixon — lived in Huntington Park, near Los Angeles, city of earthquakes. Ed liked to tell a story about his wife, Dora, a spiritualist preacher. Dora spent the couple of Sundays before the big earthquake of March 10, 1933, talking about how she was not afraid of death. In fact, she preached, “I welcome death.” But when the big earthquake hit, Dora ran into the street and screamed at the sky, “I didn’t mean it, God! I didn’t mean it!”

When Lotte Lehmann’s mother died, Lotte was devastated. However, she was scheduled to sing at an important premiere, Richard Strauss’s “Arabella,” and no one was able to take over for her. Ms. Lehmann sang the part, and afterwards she wrote, “It seemed impossible, but the great blessing was granted me of becoming for a few hours a different person, of being able to forget for a few hours what had been taken from me.”

When comic writer Robert Benchley died, his will, in which he left everything to his wife, was exactly one sentence long: “Confident that she will adequately provide for our two sons, and any child hereafter born to us, I make no provision for them, but give all my property to Gertrude D. Benchley, absolutely, appointing her Executrix without security.”

Basketball great Michael Jordan’s father died senselessly. He was murdered for his money when a couple of hoodlums found him sleeping in his car. Mr. Jordan did not attend the trial, and he did not ask for capital punishment for the murderers of his father. When asked about the killers, he would say, “My father is dead. That’s all I care about.”

When the son of Roman emperor Tiberius died, condolences were very slow in coming from the city of Troy, but they eventually arrived. Tiberius replied to the Trojans, “In return for your very prompt expressions of your sympathy, I would like to assure you of my very deep regret at the passing of your fellow-countryman Hector.”

The two children of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan died tragically in a train accident. Many people comforted her, and telegrams and letters of condolence arrived to her from most parts of the world. Some art students even placed white roses and lilacs on the shrubs and trees of her garden.

When Queen Victoria died, actor Lewis Waller started crying and said, “She’s dead! She’s dead!” He was inconsolable, and when a friend tried to advise him not to take her death so hard, he said, “It’s the receipts — the receipts are bound to drop!” Just as he expected, they did.

Sculptor Louise Nevelson was once asked about reincarnation. She replied, “I don’t believe in reincarnation”; however, she agreed to answer a question about it. The interviewer asked, “What would you like to come back as in your next life?” She replied, “Louise Nevelson.”

William Ellery Channing, the friend and biographer of Henry David Thoreau, author of “Walden,” was unable to accept Mr. Thoreau’s death. Instead of saying that Mr. Thoreau had died, Mr. Channing instead said, “When Mr. Thoreau went away from Concord ….”

Thomas Hart Benton and John Caldwell Calhoun were enemies. After Mr. Calhoun died, Mr. Benton was asked, “I suppose, Tom, you won’t pursue Calhoun beyond the grave?” Mr. Benton replied, “No, sir! When the Lord lays his hands on a man, sir, I take mine off.”

Alicia Markova once danced in “Murder in Adagio,” which she believes is the first murder-mystery ballet. In it, she played a typist who used a poisoned typewriter ribbon to murder people.

Buried in the catacombs under Rome are thousands of Christian martyrs. One epitaph for a Christian reads: “Alexander is not dead — he lives beyond the stars.”

At dinner, conversation concerned the best death that could be had. Julius Caesar’s answer was, “A sudden one.”

“They say only the good die young. Francisco Franco was 86.” — A two-sentence obituary by Richard Aregood.

When asked which inscription should be put on his tombstone, Peter Ustinov suggested, “Keep off the grass.”

“My uncle was psychic. Knew exactly the day he’d die — the warden told him.” — Henny Youngman.

Hard-working actor Lionel Barrymore wrote his own epitaph: “He played everything but a harp.”

A rich man told his chauffeur, “Drive off that cliff, James. I want to commit suicide.”

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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Nineteenth-century surgeon Joseph Green took his own pulse, said “Stopped,” and then died.

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