lydia

Lydia consults the Handbook for the Recently Deceased in the film Beetlejuice

“I must go in. The fog is rising.” – last words of Emily Dickinson

I have a fascination with death. One reason may be that I was an English major. Poet Billy Collins has said that majoring in English is like majoring in death. Yes, it does seem to be a favorite theme in literature. But how can you not be somewhat fascinated with Death? It’s a much bigger and more important topic than birth.

One of my interests has been in the last words of people. Not everyone, famous or not, has a chance to say something just before they die, and not everyone has the wit to say something clever enough to be memorable.

Lots of people have a similar interest in dying words. The author John Green made that part of a character in his novel Looking for Alaska, and Green dropped them throughout the book and geeked out over a big book  of Last Words of Notable People that was published in 2012.

As I said, not everyone gets a chance at this last bit of fame. George Orwell’s last written words were, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.” He died at age 46.

Nostradamus said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here” and correctly predicted his death.

I love Herman Melville. I was very surprised to learn that he died saying, “God bless Captain Vere!” Vere is a character in his then-unpublished novel Billy Budd, which was found on his desk after he died. One last act of self-promotion.

I stumbled upon The Oxford Book of Death in a bookstore, which sounds like a real downer that you should only assign as reading to some English majors in an honors seminar.

I paged through it and read things that caught my eye. It’s not all melancholy. The authors range from long-dead Plato to living (at least at the time) poets, playwrights and authors.

Some people are funny, sarcastic or witty right to the end.

Drummer Buddy Rich died after having surgery, but when he was being prepped, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you can’t take?” and Buddy replied, “Yeah, country music.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s last words were, “I’m bored with it all.”

Actor, tough guy, drinker and smoker Humphrey Bogart ended with “I should never have switched from Scotch to martinis.”

George Appel, executed by electric chair in 1928, said before the pulled the switch, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” I bet that wasn’t an ad-lib.

Poets are not always poetic at the end. “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record,” said the heavy drinking Dylan Thomas before he died of pneumonia.  And “Now I shall go to sleep. Goodnight, ” were the closing lines from Lord Byron. Not even a rhyming couplet.

Johnny Ace, a 1950s rhythm and blues singer, was playing Russian roulette with his revolver on a backstage at a concert on Christmas Day 1954. He said “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?” and when he pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at his face, there was a bullet, and it killed him instantly.

Socialite Lady Nancy Astor, was very ill and awoke on her deathbed to see her family all around her. She said, “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?”

Sir Walter Raleigh, English writer, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer said to his executioner just before the axe came down on his neck, “Strike, man, strike!”

The very practical inventor Thomas A. Edison went out with the hopeful line “It’s very beautiful over there.”

Edison’s closing line is the kind of thought you want to believe is what we see as we cross over from this life – that is, if you believe there is a place to cross over to. We haven’t had any reliable reports from the other side.

That’s why I like the movie Beetlejuice. In its darkly comic way, we get to follow a couple who have just died and are definitely not ready to move on. One of the things they get on the other side is a copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. I actually found that they sell it on Amazon.com but you may be disappointed to find this reproduction of the movie prop book is a blank book. Perhaps, it is intended for you to take notes after death. Perhaps, the information only appears to the recently dead. I use it to catalog last words and good quotes about death. I figure those will come in handy in the afterlife.

But in Tim Burton’s excellent 1988 film (with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and Winona Ryder) there is actual advice. There are important things for the recently deceased to know, such as that living people generally ignore the strange and unusual. The rules for ghost and the dead aren’t fixed and vary from manifestation to manifestation. Deaths are personal. Ghosts vary based on how a person lived and died. The book suggests that in case of an emergency, draw a door and knock three times. It also lets you know how to do a séance and how to haunt the living.

The recently deceased consult the Handbook

The recently deceased Adam and Barbara consult the Handbook

This laughing about death is healthy. It doesn’t make me feel very good about the whole process to know that the short story writer O. Henry (who loved surprise endings) said at his end ‘Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”  I don’t want to go over in the dark either. I hoping for that warm, inviting light and the smell of baking bread that I keep hearing about.

Advertisements