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The Book of Death

MONTAIGNE was fond of reading minute accounts of the deaths of remarkable persons; and, in the simplicity of his heart, old Montaigne wished to be learned enough to form a collection of these deaths, to observe “their words, their actions, and what sort of countenance they put upon it.” He seems to have been a little over curious, in reference, no doubt, to his own, in which he was certainly deceived; for he did not die as he had promised himself,—expiring in the adoration of the mass; or, as his preceptor Buchanan would have called it, in “the act of rank idolatry.”

I have been told of a privately printed volume, under the singular title of “The Book of Death,” where an amateur has compiled the pious memorials of many of our eminent men in their last moments: and it may form a companion-piece to the little volume on “Les grinds hommes qui sent morts en plaisantant.” This work, I fear, must be monotonous; the deaths of the righteous must resemble each other; the learned and the eloquent can only receive in silence that hope which awaits “the covenant of the grave.” But this volume will not establish any decisive principle; since the just and the religious have not always encountered death with indifference, nor even in a fit composure of mind.

The functions of the mind are connected with those of the body. On a death-bed a fortnight’s disease may reduce the firmest to a most wretched state; while, on the contrary, the soul struggles, as it were in torture, in a robust frame. Nani, the Venetian historian, has curiously described the death of Innocent X., who was a character unblemished by vices, and who died at an advanced age, with too robust a constitution. Dopo lunga e terribile agonia, con dolore e con pena, seperandosi l’anima da duel corpo robusto, egli spiro ai sette di Genuaro, nel ottantesimo primo de suoi anno. “After a long and terrible agony, with great bodily pain and difficulty, his soul separated itself from that robust frame, and expired in his eighty-first year.”

Some have composed sermons on death, while they passed many years of anxiety, approaching to madness, in contemplating their own. The certainty of an immediate separation from all our human sympathies may even on a death-bed, suddenly disorder the imagination. The great physician of our times told me of a general, who had often faced the cannon’s mouth, dropping down in terror, when informed by him that his disease was rapid and fatal. Some have died of the strong imagination of death. There is a print of a knight brought on the scaffold to suffer; he viewed the headsman; he was blinded, and knelt down to receive the stroke. Having passed through the whole ceremony of a criminal execution, accompanied by all its disgrace, it was ordered that his life should be spared,—instead of the stroke from the sword, they poured cold water over his neck. After this operation the knight remained motionless, and they discovered that he had expired in the very imagination of death! Such are among the many causes which may affect the mind in the hour of its last trial. The habitual associations of the natural character are most likely to prevail—though not always! The intrepid Marshal Biron disgraced his exit by womanish tears, and raging imbecility; the virtuous Erasmus, with miserable groans was heard crying out Domine! Domine! fac finem! fac finem! Bayle having prepared his proof for the printer, pointed to where it lay when dying. The last words which Lord Chesterfield was heard to speak were, when the valet, opening the curtains of the bed, announced Mr. Dayroles—“Give Dayroles a chair!” “This good-breeding,” observed the late Dr. Warren, his physician, “only quits him with his life.” The last words of Nelson were, “Tell Collingwood to bring the fleet to an anchor.” The tranquil grandeur which cast a new majesty over Charles the First on the scaffold, appeared when he declared,—“I fear not death! Death is not terrible to me!” And the characteristic pleasantry of Sir Thomas More exhilarated his last moments, when, observing the weakness of the scaffold, he said, in mounting it, “I pray you see me up safe, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself!” Sir Walter Rawleigh passed a similar jest when going to the scaffold.

My ingenious friend Dr. Sherwen has furnished me with the following anecdotes of death. In one of the bloody battles fought by the Duke of Enghien, two French noblemen were left wounded among the dead on the field of battle. One complained loudly of his pains, the other after long silence thus offered him consolation:—“My friend, whomever you are, remember that our God died on the cross, our king on the scaffold; and if you have strength to look at him who now speaks to you, you will see that both his legs are shot away.”

At the murder of the Duke of Enghien, the royal victim looking at the soldiers who had pointed their fusees, said, “Grenadiers! lower your arms, otherwise you will miss, or only wound me!” To two of them who proposed to tie a handkerchief over his eyes, he said, “A loyal soldier who has been so often exposed to fire and sword, can see the approach of death with naked eyes, and without fear.”

After a similar caution on the part of Sir George Lisle, or Sir Charles Lucas, when murdered in nearly the same manner at Colchester, by the soldiers of Fairfax, the loyal hero in answer to their assertions and assurances that they would take care not to miss him, nobly replied, “You have often missed me when I have been nearer to you in the field of battle.”

When the governor of Cadiz, the Marquis de Solano, was murdered by the enraged and mistaken citizens, to one of his murderers who had run a pike through his back, he calmly turned round and said, “Coward, to strike there! Come round, if you dare—face, and destroy me!”

Mr. Abernethy in his Physiological Lectures has ingeniously observed, that “Shakespeare has represented Mercutio continuing to jest, though conscious that he was mortally wounded; the expiring Hotspur thinking of nothing but honour; and the dying Falstaff still cracking his jests upon Bardolph’s nose. If such facts were duly attended to, they would prompt us to make a more liberal allowance for each other’s conduct under certain circumstances than we are accustomed to do.” The truth seems to be, that whenever the functions of the mind are not disturbed by “the nervous functions of the digestive organs,” the personal character predominates even in death, and its habitual associations exist to its last moments. Many religious persons may have died without showing in their last moments any of those exterior acts, or employing those fervent expressions, which the collector of “The Book of Death” would only deign to chronicle; their hope is not gathered in their last hour.

Yet many with us have delighted to taste of death long before they have died, and have placed before their eyes all the furniture of mortality. The horrors of a charnel-house is the scene of their pleasure. The “Midnight Meditations” of Quarles preceded Young’s “Night Thoughts” by a century, and both these poets loved preternatural terror.

“If I must die, I’ll snatch at every thing
  That may but mind me of my latest breath;
        TOMBS, all these shall bring
  Into my soul such useful thoughts of death,
        That this sable king of fears
        Shall not catch me unawares.”—QUARLES.

But it may be doubtful whether the thoughts of death are useful, whenever they put a man out of the possession of his faculties. Young pursued the scheme of Quarles: he raised about him an artificial emotion of death; he darkened his sepulchral study, placing a skull on his table by lamplight; as Dr. Donne had his portrait taken, first winding a sheet over his head and closing his eyes; keeping this melancholy picture by his bed-side as long as he lived, to remind him of his mortality. Young even in his garden had his conceits of death: at the end of an avenue was viewed a seat of an admirable chiaro oscuro, which, when approached, presented only a painted surface, with an inscription, alluding to the deception of the things of this world. To be looking at “The mirror which flatters not;” to discover ourselves only as a skeleton with the horrid life of corruption about us, has been among those penitential inventions, which have often ended in shaking the innocent by the pangs which are only natural to the damned. Without adverting to those numerous testimonies, the diaries of fanatics, I shall offer a picture of an accomplished and innocent lady, in a curious and unaffected transcript she has left of a mind of great sensibility, where the preternatural terror of death might perhaps have hastened the premature one she suffered.

From the “Reliquiæ Gethinianæ,”2 I quote some of Lady Gethin’s ideas on “Death.”—“The very thoughts of death disturb one’s reason; and though a man may have many excellent qualities, yet he may have the weakness of not commanding his sentiments. Nothing is worse for one’s health, than to be in fear of death. There are some so wise, as neither to hate nor fear it; but for my part I have an aversion for it, and with reason; for it is a rash, inconsiderate thing, that always comes before it is looked for; always comes unseasonably, parts friends, ruins beauty, laughs at youth, and draws a dark veil over all the pleasures of life.—This dreadful evil is but the evil of a moment, and what we cannot by any means avoid; and it is that which makes it so terrible to me; for were it uncertain, hope might diminish some part of the fear; but when I think I must die, and that I may die every moment, and that too a thousand several ways, I am in such a fright, as you cannot imagine. I see dangers where, perhaps, there never were any. I am persuaded ’tis happy to be somewhat dull of apprehension in this case; and yet the best way to cure the pensiveness of the thoughts of death is to think of it as little as possible.” She proceeds by enumerating the terrors of the fearful, who “cannot enjoy themselves in the pleasantest places, and although they are neither on sea, river, or creek, but in good health in their chamber, yet are they so well instructed with the fear of dying, that they do not measure it only by the present dangers that wait on us.—Then is it not best to submit to God? But some people cannot do it as they would; and though they are not destitute of reason but perceive they are to blame, yet at the same time that their reason condemns them, their imagination makes their hearts feel what it pleases.”

Such is the picture of an ingenuous and a religious mind, drawn by an amiable woman, who, it is evident, lived always in the fear of death. The Gothic skeleton was ever haunting her imagination. In Dr. Johnson the same horror was suggested by the thoughts of death. When Boswell once in conversation persecuted Johnson on this subject, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death; he answered in a passion, “No, sir! let it alone! It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives! The art of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time!” But when Boswell persisted in the conversation, Johnson was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he thundered out, “Give us no more of this!” and, further, sternly told the trembling and too curious philosopher, “Don’t let us meet tomorrow!”

It may be a question whether those who by their preparatory conduct have appeared to show the greatest indifference for death, have not rather betrayed the most curious art to disguise its terrors. Some have invented a mode of escaping from life in the midst of convivial enjoyment. A mortuary preparation of this kind has been recorded of an amiable man, Moncriff, the author of “Histoire des Chats” and “L’Art de Plaire,” by his literary friend La Place, who was an actor in, as well as the historian of the singular narrative. One morning La Place received a note from Moncriff, requesting that “he would immediately select for him a dozen volumes most likely to amuse, and of a nature to withdraw the reader from being occupied by melancholy thoughts.” La Place was startled at the unusual request, and flew to his old friend, whom he found deeply engaged in being measured for a new peruke, and a taffety robe de chambre, earnestly enjoining the utmost expedition. “Shut the door!”—said Moncriff, observing the surprise of his friend. “And now that we are alone, I confide my secret: on rising this morning, my valet in dressing me showed me on this leg this dark spot—from that moment I knew I was ‘condemned to death;’ but I had presence of mind enough not to betray myself.” “Can a head so well organised as yours imagine that such a trifle is a sentence of death?”—“Don't speak so loud, my friend!—or rather deign to listen a moment. At my age it is fatal! The system from which I have derived the felicity of a long life has been, that whenever any evil, moral or physical, happens to us, if there is a remedy, all must be sacrificed to deliver us from it—but in a contrary case, I do not choose to wrestle with destiny and to begin complaints, endless as useless! All that I request of you, my friend, is to assist me to pass away the few days which remain for me, free from all cares, of which otherwise they might be too susceptible. But do not think,” he added with warmth, “that I mean to elude the religious duties of a citizen, which so many of late affect to contemn. The good and virtuous curate of my parish is coming here under a pretext of an annual contribution, and I have even ordered my physician, on whose confidence I can rely. Here is a list of ten or twelve persons, friends beloved! who are mostly known to you. I shall write to them this evening, to tell them of my condemnation; but if they wish me to live, they will do me the favour to assemble here at five in the evening, where they may be certain of finding all those objects of amusement, which I shall study to discover suitable to their tastes. And you, my old friend, with my doctor, are two on whom I most depend.”

La Place was strongly affected by this appeal—neither Socrates, nor Cato, nor Seneca looked more serenely on the approach of death.

“Familiarise yourself early with death!” said the good old man with a smile; “it is only dreadful for those who dread it!”

During ten days after this singular conversation, the whole of Moncriff’s remaining life, his apartment was open to his friends, of whom several were ladies; all kinds of games were played till nine o’clock, and that the sorrows of the host might not disturb his guests, he played the chouette at his favourite game of picquet: a supper, seasoned by the wit of the master, concluded at eleven. On the tenth night, in taking leave of his friend, Moncriff whispered to him, “Adieu, my friend! tomorrow morning I shall return your books!” He died, as he foresaw, the following day.

I have sometimes thought that we might form a history of this fear of death, by tracing the first appearances of the SKELETON which haunts our funereal imagination. In the modern history of mankind we might discover some very strong contrasts in the notion of death entertained by men at various epochs. The following article will supply a sketch of this kind.

1 Blacks was the term for mourning in James the First and Charles the First’s time.

2 My discovery of the nature of this rare volume, of what is original and what collected, will be found in a preceding portion of this work.

Editor’s Notes

 § Three further footnotes are appended to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, upon the sentence ‘Sir Walter Rawleigh passed a similar jest when going to the scaffold:’

To these may be added Queen Anne Boleyn. Kingston, the Lieutenant of the Tower, in a letter to Cromwell, records that she remarked of her own execution, “‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck;’ and she put her hands about it, laughing heartily. Truly, this lady has much joy and pleasure in death.”

Second, regarding the portrait of Dr. Donne:

It was from this picture his stone effigy was constructed for his tomb in old St. Paul’s. The mutilated figure, which withstood the great fire of London, is still preserved in the crypt of the present cathedral.

And, third, further to the phrase ‘the pangs which are only natural to the damned:’

A still more curious fashion in this taste for mortuary memorials originated at the court of Henry II. of France; whose mistress Diana of Poitiers, being a widow; mourning colours of black and white became the fashion at court. Watches in the form of skulls were worn; jewels and pendants in the shape of coffins; and rings decorated with skulls and skeletons.’