Monday, September 26, 2011

Just what was the root of his neurosis?

September 23, 1939: Sigmund Freud died at age 83, of cancer of the jaw, brought on by the some two-dozen cigars he smoked daily. His last words have been variously recorded, sometimes as:

"My dear Schur (his doctor), you remember our first talk. You promised to help me (by giving him morphine) when I could no longer carry on. It is only torture now, and it has no longer any sense."

And as:

"It's absurd."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Deathless thoughts of Montaigne

I missed this: Michel de Montaigne, the master of the personal essay (he invented the form) and aphorist extraordinaire, died on September 13, 1592. Of death, he had this to say, among other things:

"If you don't know how to die, don't worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don't bother your head about it."

"It is not death, it is dying that alarms me."

"Death, they say, acquits us of all obligations."


"The ceaseless labour of one's whole life is to build the house of death."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Words Elvis did not live by

Louis XVIII of France died on this day in 1824. Wheelchair-bound for most of his later life because of a severe case of gout, he supposedly uttered these last words as he was about to die:

"A king should die standing."

The quotation has been attributed to others, as well, such as the Roman emperor Vespasian, and the Danish king Liward, who said:

"Let me up that I may die standing, not lying down like a cow."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

He was dying to get it off his chest

Spanish playwright Lope de Vega died on this day in 1635. He wrote some 2,000 plays. His supposed last words were:

"All right, then, I'll say it, Dante makes me sick."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I think, therefore I'm dead

A couple of famous philosophers died on this day.

Scottish philosopher David Hume (pictured here) died on this day in 1776.

"The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster," Hume wrote, and also:

It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

And German philosoher Friedrich Nietzsche died August 25, 1900.

"In heaven all the interesting people are missing," Nietzsche wrote.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Interesting, and all right

August 21, 1762: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, English aristocrat and writer, died. Her last words:

"It has all been most interesting."

August 23, 1926: Actor and heartthrob Rudolph Valentino died. His last words:

"Don't worry chief, it will be all right."

Monday, August 15, 2011

Deaths updated

August 12, 2007: TV host and quiz-show pioneer Merv Griffin’s headstone reads “I Will Not Be Right Back After This Message.”

August 13, 1946: Author H. G. Wells (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) died. His last words:

"Go away. I'm all right."

August 14, 1956: Playwright Bertold Brecht died. He wrote:

Don't be afraid of death so much as an inadequate life.”

August 15, 1935: Humorist Will Rogers died. He said:

"This thing of being a hero, about the main thing to it is to know when to die." 

Monday, July 25, 2011

To eradicate mankind, yes

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge died on July 25, 1834.

"A man may devote himself to death and destruction to save a nation;" Coleridge wrote, "but no nation will devote itself to death and destruction to save mankind."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Only the worms care

July 23, 1880: American mystery writer Raymond Chandler was born. In The Big Sleep, he wrote:

"Where did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered with things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you."

Chandler also wrote:

"Woe, woe, woe... in a little while we shall all be dead. Therefore let us behave as though we were dead already."

Friday, July 22, 2011

And so on

Poet Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967. He wrote:

"A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writing is next to Godliness

The Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch died on this day in 1374. He wrote:

"I desire that death find me ready and writing, or if it please Christ, praying and in tears."

Also on this day, in 1897, the American writer Jean Ingelow died. Never heard of her? Neither have I, but she wrote something apropos to this day. (Man first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.)

"You Moon! Have you done something wrong in heaven,
That God has hidden your face?"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Obituary of Anna Brown Shea

Anna Brown Shea, passed away June 11, 2011, one day after her 75th birthday. Survived by daughter, Joan (Paul) Erland, of Pegram, and grandchildren, Scott and Emily Erland. Preceded in death by husband, William “Bo” Brown. Anna was born June 10, 1936 in Lawrenceburg, TN, the daughter of T. V. and Bessie White, who also preceded her in death. She grew up in Lawrence County, and later lived in Nashville, Cleveland, Ohio, Sarasota, Florida, and finally in Pegram and Ashland City. Anna was known for her straight talk and her finely-tuned sense of humor. She loved conversation and a social smoke or two, and marveling at and recounting the accomplishments of her grandkids. She was fiercely loyal to those she loved. She made many fast friends during her short sojourn at the Christian Care Center in Ashland City, whose staff the family would like to warmly thank for their kindness, generosity and good humor. Anna loved to laugh, and her family will always be grateful that she found a final home in which to exercise her convivial spirit and open her kind heart. In accordance with her wishes, she will be cremated. The family will conduct a private ceremony in Lawrenceburg at a later date. If so inclined, please make a donation to the Pegram Elementary School Library in Anna’s memory.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cioran on death

E. M. Cioran, a Romanian writer who wrote in French, died on this day in 1995. A sampling of Cioran on death and dying:

"What is neither healthy or natural is the frantic appetite to exist."

"To rid oneself of life is to deprive oneself of the pleasures of deriding it."

"I anticipated witnessing in my lifetime the disappearance of our species. But the gods have been against me."

"Life and death have little enough content...We always know this too late, when it can no longer help us either to live or to die."

"So many memories that loom up without any apparent necessity -- of what use are they except to show us that with age we are becoming external to our own life, that these remote "events" no longer have anything to do with us, and that someday the same will be true of this life itself?"

Cioran's mother's last note to him ended: "Whatever people try to do, they'll regret it sooner or later."

For more from Cioran, visit Today in The Cynic's Almanac

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Timothy Leary's still dead

Timothy Leary, the American writer, psychologist, campaigner for psychedelic drug research and use, and icon of youth in the 60s, died on this day in 1996.

Among his last words were the ones he said often throughout his career:

"Why not?"

Monday, May 30, 2011

Like a doornail

The French writer Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) died on this day in 1788.

"The godless arch-scoundrel Voltaire is dead! Dead like a dog, like a beast!" -- Mozart.

To read about another famous death on this day, visit Today in Cynic's Almanac

Friday, May 20, 2011

In fifteen hundred and six, Columbus kicks

Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506. He was 54.

The following is from

"He had suffered through a long terminal illness that first showed symptoms on his third voyage eight years before.

"According to his son Fernando, the cause of death was "gout." But in those days, gout was a catchall diagnosis for anything that caused joint pain. Recent research by Gerald Weissmann indicates that the most likely cause of death was Reiter's Syndrome, a rare tropical disease.

"Upon his death, Columbus was initially buried in a small cemetary in Valladolid. Shortly thereafter, his body was moved to Seville. When Columbus' eldest son and heir Diego died in 1526, he was buried beside his father.

"But Diego's widow petitioned the Spanish court to move both bodies to the cathedral in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola. So the remains of Columbus were moved across the Atlantic, and were buried under the right side of the altar in the cathedral in Santo Domingo. And there matters stood for two centuries.

"In 1795, France captured the island of Hispaniola from Spain. By this time, the Spanish viewed the Admiral's remains as a national treasure, and wanted to prevent their capture by the French at all costs. So, relying on old records, they dug up the remains and removed them to Havana, Cuba. A century later, when Cuba won independence from Spain, the remains were moved again, from Havana back across the ocean to Seville. And so, if you visit the cathedral in Seville today, you will find the tomb of Columbus.

"But that's not the whole story. In 1877, workers were restoring the cathedral in Santo Domingo and found, under the left side of the altar, a box containing human remains. The box bore Columbus's name. It immediately became clear to some that the 'left' and 'right' sides of the altar depend entirely upon the direction one is facing. And therefore, some argue, the body that had been moved to Havana in 1795 was really that of Diego, while the Admiral's remains had been in Santo Domingo all along. And so, if you visit the cathedral in Santo Domingo today, you will find another tomb of Columbus.

"Meanwhile, one historian has argued that the wrong body was moved from Havana to Seville, and therefore, Columbus's remains are really in Havana. And another historian argues that Columbus's remains never left Valladolid! Furthermore, portions of the remains in Seville were given to the city of Genoa in 1892 as part of the quadricentennial celebration.

"Recently, Spanish scientists tried DNA analysis to answer the question. As it turned out, DNA was not even necessary: a cursory examination of the bones in Seville showed that they must have been those of Columbus's sickly son Diego, not the Admiral himself. So the discoverer's final resting place is in Santo Domingo after all."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Here's looking at him

The painter Pablo Picasso died on this day in 1973. His last words:

"Drink to me."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One dies every minute, too

P. T. Barnum ("There's a sucker born every minute") died on this day in 1891. His last words:

"How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?"

Monday, April 4, 2011

He had a dream

Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray on this day in 1968.

"The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet's dream; it is a most depressing and humiliating reality." -- Oscar Wilde.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

We'll be the judge of that

Esther Morris, the first woman judge in the U. S., died on this day in 1902, in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

"A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view." -- Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906).

Friday, April 1, 2011

What's goin' on?

Soul singer Marvin Gaye died on this day in 1984, one day before his forty-fifth birthday.

Gaye's clergyman father shot and killed him after an argument.

Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

"Music is one of the closest link-ups with God that we can probably experience," Gaye said. "I think it's a common vibrating tone of the musical notes that holds all life together."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What did become of her?

John C. Calhoun, the Southern politician and political philosopher who was the strongest proponent of Southern rights during the first half of the 19th Century, died on this day in 1850.

His reputed last words:

"The South! The poor South! God knows what will become of her."

Also on this day, in 1631, poet John Donne died, he who wrote:

"Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Is this microphone dead, or am I?

Host Jack Paar did his last Tonight show on this day in 1962. Paar had walked off the show (literally in the middle of it) several times, but this was his real swan song.

Paar once suggested a couple of epitaphs to his pal and fellow talk-show host Merv Griffin:

"You had your chance, now he's gone" was one. The other was:

"Keep the line moving."

Griffin, incidentally, came up with one for himself:

"Now, I will not be back in a minute."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Iceman Cometh

Today in 1912 was a famous day for parting words.

John Jacob Astor, the American industrialist who was the richest man in the world at the time, was a passenger on the Titanic with his new young bride. The couple was about to step into a lifeboat when Astor gave up his seat to a female passenger. He was one of the 1500 that perished when the ship sank. Astor's last words were:

"Goodbye, dearie, I'll see you later."

Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the famed British explorer, reached the South Pole on Jan. 18, 1912, only to find that they'd been beaten there by a party led by Roald Admundsen. On their return trip to their base camp, the entire party died.

"Had we lived," Scott wrote in his diary, "I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.."

Monday, March 28, 2011

She couldn't write like me

Writer Virginia Woolf died on this day in 1941.

"Life," she wrote, " arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength...and how can we generate this..?

"By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

So close, yet so far

An acquaintance of mine died the other day. When I read his obituary, I called a friend to tell him. He said what people almost invariably say in these situations:

“But I just talked to him the other day.”

George Carlin does a riff on this eternal response, something like:

“Oh, really? Well, you dumb cluck (epithet altered), it didn’t help him any, did it? He still died, even though you talked to him. As a matter of fact, your talking to him might even have hastened his demise…”

Here’s my take on it:

We all say this because we’re shaken and stunned to have been in the presence of imminent and brooding death. We think maybe we could have done something, said something…

We feel we ought to have been more respectful – to have paid more attention. If only we’d known this person was in the shadow of death…

Had we known, we would have regarded the about-to-die in a new light. We would have seized upon something to remember him by.

We would have stood in awe at implacable Death, or perhaps we might have been appalled by its importunity – its bad manners.

Yes, we do imagine, if we could have spoken the right word, the right phrase, we might even have warded off Death.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Triangle tragedy

On this day in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burned down, killing 145 workers. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

This is from Today in History:

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris' notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris' company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters' ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building's top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers' union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We all got rhythm, but not much time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on this day in 1882.

In "A Psalm of Life," Longfellow wrote:

"Our hearts, like muffled
Drums, are beating funeral marches
to the grave

Also on this day, in 1603, Elizabeth I, Queen of England, died. Her last words:

"All my possessions for a moment of time."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I think, therefore am I?

Stephen Decatur, American naval hero of the War of 1812, died on this day in 1820, of wounds suffered in a duel.

His last words:

"I am mortally wounded...I think."

Monday, March 21, 2011

The real question, then as now: Who cares?

On this day in 1980, J.R. Ewing, the character millions loved to hate on television’s popular primetime drama, "Dallas," was “shot.”

The simulated shooting made the season-ending episode one of television’s most famous cliffhangers, inspired widespread media coverage and left America wondering “Who shot J.R.?” for the next eight months.

On November 21, 1980, the premiere episode of Dallas’s third season solved the mystery, identifying Kristin Shepard, J.R.’s wife’s sister and his mistress, as the culprit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pet funerals become big business

(From The Tennessean, Jan. 7, 2008)

At a facility tucked into a Carmel, Ind., shopping center, pet owners find urns to store their deceased animals' ashes and a chapel to say their last goodbyes. They're offered hugs and condolences and the chance to memorialize their pets by screen-printing their pictures onto plates or throws.

This place emerged from Coleen Ellis' vision of providing the high-quality after-care offered to humans for the furry creatures that, in many households, are like members of the family.

She opened Pet Angel Memorial Center in 2004, and the concept took off so successfully that it's on its way to being franchised nationwide, with hopes of expanding to 500 locations.

With the help of a few private-equity investors, Ellis recently closed on locations in Wichita, Kan., and Tampa, Fla.

This year, she hopes to expand with stores throughout the Indianapolis area. The corporate headquarters and training center will be in Carmel, Ind.

Ellis said that as the company grows, so will the concept of treating pet death with dignity.

"I think 10 or 15 years from now, when your pet dies, you'll call the pet funeral director," said Ellis, who previously worked in human funeral services. "We'll be the ones not only leading the charge, but setting the standard for your pet funeral home."

Saying goodbye
She said she was inspired to open the business by the death of her dog, Mico.

Until Ellis opened her operation, pet owners seeking that service had nowhere to go, according to the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. About a dozen pet funeral homes nationwide have followed suit.

When Pet Angel opened its doors, it received about a call a week from pet owners. Now it has seen more than 3,000 clients and serves about 90 a month.

Almost all of the pet owners opt for cremations, at $230-$430, with additional fees for heavier animals, and come with keepsakes such as a mold of the pet's paw print and snippets of its fur. The business serves mainly cats and dogs but has seen rats, birds, goldfish, even chinchillas.

Some owners choose to bury their animals, and about 15 have had full-blown funerals.

"The whole process is about closure," said Ellis. "It's being able to say goodbye in a comfortable setting one more time."

Massachusetts-based entrepreneur Glenn Hanson decided to invest in Pet Angel about a year ago. He had been thinking of starting his own pet after-care franchise, but when he was introduced to Ellis' business model, he found it perfect for the niche.

"It's not hard to figure out that the pet industry is growing and the animals eventually do die," said Hanson, who owns a cocker spaniel-poodle mix named Oliver. "People like me will suffer heavily when the time comes for their loss. Anybody who satisfies the need of comforting the grieving parent will be successful."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The postman was bringing him the latest Sherlock Holmes

Abolitionist and preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, died on this day in 1887.

Beecher's oratical gifts and his free-thinking style made him "the most famous man in America." His popularity lasted throughout his life, surviving a sensational adultery trial in 1875 that ended in a hung jury, an acceptance of Darwinism, and even his eventual rejection of the divinity of Jesus.

His last words:

"Now comes the mystery."

Friday, March 4, 2011

He made a killing in business

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the head of Murder, Inc., was executed on this day at Sing Sing Prison in New York. Lepke was the leader of the country's largest crime syndicate throughout the 1930s and was making nearly $50 million a year from his various enterprises. His downfall came when several members of his notorious killing squad turned into witnesses for the government.

Lepke began his criminal career robbing pushcarts as a teenager. When he met Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro while trying to rob the same pushcart, the two quickly became a formidable team. With Shapiro's brute strength, the two established an extortion business, forcing pushcart owners to pay for protection. Lepke and Shapiro then joined Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen's Lower East Side gang and turned their attention to bigger game.

One by one, Lepke and the gang terrorized the local garment workers unions. They took over control of the unions and forced kickback payments from both the members and the employers. Soon, they had taken over the entire New York garment industry. In the 1920s, they added liquor bootlegging and gambling and later began importing heroin and other narcotics.

Lepke assembled a large team of hired killers to enforce his control. At one time, this team may have included as many as 250 hit men. Lepke also began to coordinate operations with the other big crime kingpins around the nation. With Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Dutch Schultz, Lepke virtually controlled organized crime throughout the country. In 1935, Schultz wanted to kill New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey, but Lepke, fearing that it would bring even more intense scrutiny and pressure from law enforcement, had Schultz killed instead.

In order to generate more income and keep his hit men occupied, Lepke started Murder, Inc. in 1933. Murder, Inc. was authorized to kill anyone (approved by the syndicate) for a profit. With his hit squad protecting him from rivals and paid-off judges and officers keeping him out of jail, Lepke was America's premier criminal until he was betrayed by his own men. Reportedly, he was able to order final hits on his betrayers from jail before his execution

(From This Day In History at

Friday, January 14, 2011

Die, then live it up

We missed January 9, the death date of writer Katherine Mansfield. She wrote:

"If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral."

Sunday, January 9, 2011

RIP, Kindell Stephens (1942-2008)

My friend Kindell Stephens died January 2, 2008.

Hundreds – maybe thousands -- of others in Middle Tennessee, and elsewhere, can say this very thing. Kindell had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met. Not acquaintances – friends.

Establishing a friendship typically calls for one party to take the initiative. Kindell was determined to be my friend. We met while playing on-on-one basketball at the Y. Kindell was a great player – he had a cup of coffee with the Lakers – and he was surprised – and pleased – that I wasn’t intimidated by him. Whenever he saw the glimmer of pride, the spark of competitive fire, he embraced it.

Kindell cultivated the seeds of self-reliance in dozens of kids down through the years. A young man who spoke at his funeral thanked Kindell for “seeing something in me when nobody else saw anything.”

Kindell saw something in me, as well. Maybe it was a curiosity about him and his culture. I’d been to college and played basketball, but my education hadn’t included becoming real friends with any African Americans. The ones I’d known were as wary of me as I was of them.

Kindell came to Nashville in the mid-‘60s, when segregation was yet in full flower. He went to Fisk, starred in basketball, had that stint in the pros, and came back to Nashville. He counseled young athletes, first at Fisk, later at Tennessee State, where he was sports information director and the “Voice of the Tigers” on radio broadcasts.

After Kindell and I met, he asked me to play on a basketball team with him. I was the only white on a team of blacks – I got an inkling of what it was like to be a minority. Kindell helped me feel at ease.

The more I got to know Kindell, the more I learned about empathy – not the refined and ethereal kind of empathy the philosophers recommend, but empathy in action. I seldom saw Kindell without several charges in tow – the kids whose causes he took up and made his own. As Howard Gentry, a longtime friend and broadcast associate of Kindell’s, said at a memorial tribute attended by hundreds: “If you knew Kindell, chances are that he helped you in some way.” Gentry also said, “Kindell brought me out of myself.”

As pastor Darrell Drumright said in his splendid and stirring eulogy, and as the dozen or more illustrious speakers echoed at the memorial celebration: Kindell Stephens was a facilitator, an ambassador, an encourager. He brought people together…

Why did he do it? Kindell’s brother Leonard, speaking at the tribute, recounted Kindell’s happy childhood. He wasn’t a former waif himself, on a mission to return good for evil. He was simply a good man.

We are all strangers to one another. Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine said, because earth is not our true home.

Kindell has gone home.