Toni Morrison is dead. So are D.A. Pennebaker and Aretha Franklin, and Philip Roth, Stephen Hawking, Ursula K. Le Guin, Milos Forman and too many others to name, even when limited to artists and writers who have perished in the past few years alone. By some accounts, two people die every second, thousands every hour, tens of millions every year. But at this moment in American life, the death of our best people has become a collective lifeline and refuge for our anxieties. It sometimes seems that the obituary is the only news that makes us feel whole.
Morrison was our essential conscience, a writer of narrative brilliance and moral clarity. The magnitude of her loss, at this moment in our descent into barbarism, is incalculable. But to spend time today with her work, with memories of her life and the testimony of those who knew her, is infinitely more rewarding than reading about all the other terrible things that have happened in the past few days. The deaths of artists and other creators make us reflective, and we live at a moment when looking back is much easier than looking forward.
We also crave the reassurance that we are not, as a species, entirely spent. Morrison died only days after two mass shootings, which are not only a regular fixture of American life, but also a recurring reminder of our political paralysis and the corruption of our democracy. We are in the midst of a trade war, markets have plunged, Greenland is hemorrhaging ice and our president tweets racism to inflame a hungry audience of white nationalists who dream of a world without people like Morrison in it.
Death and remembrance, at least, come with the customs and norms that have been shredded in most of the rest of public life. If nothing else, death still inspires a pause in ordinary life and, in the case of artists, a respectful consideration of their habitually ignored accomplishments. The reflective look back on a life and a body of work such as Morrison’s is ultimately celebratory, a chance to think the best of another person and, by extension, ourselves. Artists, performers, scientists, writers and other creators rarely “make news” in the same way politicians do, even though their influence on our culture is greater, deeper and more meaningful. The obituary is a belated observation and acknowledgment that people like Morrison, in fact, made news every day through their work. They formed the deeper part of the minds that our pollsters seek to measure and quantify in the frenzied haste of the news cycle. They are the atmosphere of American culture, while all else is merely weather.
Obituaries are a paradox of sorts, a distraction toward meaningfulness, a diversion to what really matters. The response to the rest of the news is often an impulse to escapism, a turning away. But while Morrison shares space with the usual firehouse of bad news, her passing offers at least one impulse to go deeper, to read more, dig in, think more critically and disconnect from the ephemera. Obituaries like the ones that have been written about her in the past day are even better than the usual “good” news, which is often little more than a reminder that somewhere, somehow, someone has done an unnecessary kindness; obituaries are redemptive on a grander scale.
We seem capable of only two modes of existence: panic and sadness, the former fast-paced and full of collateral damage to the world around us, the latter at least sometimes constructive and reflective. America has experienced periods of intense reflection around death in the past, as when the last remaining veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying in the middle of the 19th century, leaving people to wonder whether there were any steady voices and clear heads to steer us away from, or through, the accumulation of civil strife and political violence. The deaths of those who fought in World War II offered an occasion to think about the fraying of the old 20th-century social contract, the dissolution of the bond between the generations enshrined in key social-welfare programs, and the extinction of American optimism — that we might live in a society without poverty, without unnecessary suffering, with genuine opportunity and social mobility.
But the death of an artist is different from the loss of political leaders, no matter how wise or benevolent, or the larger passing of a generation, which has continued since the beginning of time. Morrison’s work remains with us, intractable, urgent and uncompromising, and it is no less effective today than it was on Monday. It is curious to listen to people on television debating the effectiveness of this policy or that plan, often arguing themselves into the absurdity that because nothing has yet worked, therefore nothing new should be attempted.
Meanwhile, the work of artists outlives them, operating on minds too young to be cynical. Politicians die and, if they’re lucky, are memorialized for having fixed something in the broken world they inherited. Artists die, and we flock to what they left behind, reanimating it, refreshing its meaning and reincorporating it into the body politic.
If you want to change the world, authentically and for the better, would you live your life like a politician, or a businessman, or a pharmaceutical executive or Donald Trump? Or would you live it like Toni Morrison?
Inside the poignant, bizarre, and necessary world of tending to the belongings of the deceased.
By Shane Cashman
We park the box truck in the dead man’s yard like a six-ton hearse and knock on the front door. A disheveled middle-aged woman answers, still in her pajamas.
“I forgot you were coming,” she says, leaning out the door to see the truck. Emblazoned on the side: William J. Jenack: Estate Appraisers & Auctioneers.
“I’m a mess,” she says. “My mother’s dying.”
We ask if she wants us to come back another time.
“No, please come in.”
She’s been living in the dead man’s house for the last two years, a white Victorian-style home with blue shutters and ivy reaching up the side. She’d known the dead man, Stanley, her whole life. He was on Broadway and she used to sit in the garden as a little girl and watch him sing show tunes. Before he passed, she promised to take care of his home, which is decorated like Stanley’s still around. His photos hang on the wall; open songbooks are displayed on the piano.
You learn a lot about a dead man rifling through his house – lifting his furniture, clearing his walls, going through his closets, finding out which psalms are dog-eared in his Bible – searching for anything that might be worth selling at auction. It feels like trespassing.
Sometimes the most genuine reflection of a person’s identity is found in the inscriptions they’ve written in books. Inside one of Stanley’s he wrote a note to himself titled Self Esteem:
I’m a handsome, wonderful human being who deserves a good life. I grabbed a mirror, gave it a big smooch and said, “I love you. You are the man, Yessur.”
Stanley’s neighbor drops by. He’s 85, bent over a cane, and speaks with a thick Ukrainian accent. He came over because he saw our truck. Now he’s asking for Stanley’s address book. But the lady tells him she threw it out years ago.
“You put him in a cemetery or you cremate him?” he asks.
“Cremation,” she says. “His ashes went to North Carolina with his wife.” She died fourteen years ago on Independence Day. She and Stanley never had kids.
In the garden we’re shown the four-foot-tall cast-stone fountain. Stanley’s house sitter says it stopped spitting water just before he died. We yank it out of the ground. Fat bugs crawl out from underneath.
“Stanley was gonna leave me a fortune,” she claims. “He said I’d never have to work again.”
“It was never in writing…The lawyer was gonna come to the house on a Tuesday…to put it in writing. Stanley died that Monday. Of course, right? So I mourned the loss of my friend…and the loss of my fortune.”
Before we leave we even take Stanley’s mailbox, almost erasing him from the block’s history. The woman says she’ll call us when her mother dies so we can come get her stuff too.
As auction gallery furniture movers, we do pickups year-round. My partner, Ryan Wagner, is 29, six-foot-two and 250 pounds. His size is crucial whenever we have to move things like 900-pound hand-carved marble Foo Dogs. Once, on a dare, he pushed the box truck across a parking lot with his bare hands. People tend to watch us move stuff like we’re in a sideshow. See the two men lift, sling, tip, slide, drag, tilt, duck, pivot and coffin things into a truck!
We start in the basement and work our way up through the house. We lift up mattresses, kick aside small tumbleweeds of hair and carry bedframes down the hall. We pack Halloween costumes and wedding dresses into banana boxes. We climb out bedroom windows onto roofs to see if weathervanes are worth anything. We step into decayed barns and collapsed sheds and pull tackle boxes, snow blowers, and tractor parts from the wreckage.
In March we traveled to the home of ninety-year-old Barbara Harris, who lived alone, save for her nurse, in Rock Tavern, New York. She was dying of Parkinson’s and couldn’t afford her farmhouse anymore.
Barbara was still in bed and the nurse led us around telling us what to take – portraits of horses, the dining room table, her rugs, her safe, and the crystal lamps on her mantle.
We heard Barbara struggling to lift herself out of bed and into her wheelchair. The nurse ignored the moans coming from Barbara’s room. “Take the stuff and go, go, go,” the nurse said. This was odd, so we stopped and waited for Barbara. “You’re not going fast enough!” the nurse yelled.
Barbara rolled herself into the living room.
“How are you, Barbara?” Ryan asked.
“Horrible,” she said. “I have an aide here who is so bossy. She’s taking everything off the walls.”
“We don’t want you to feel that we’re taking things out from beneath you,” Ryan said, even though we were there to do just that.
“I’m not comfortable with anything with her here,” Barbara said, trying to point at her nurse – her hand just trembled a little above the armrest.
“You can’t pay to heat your house,” the nurse scolded in response. “You’re going to freeze to death in here.”
Barbara wept. Ryan knelt down and put his arm around her.
Maybe the nurse was right, but we didn’t like the way she was talking to Barbara. Ryan asked the nurse to leave until we were done.
I wanted to leave something behind for Barbara, anything she could hide so she could at least have one piece of her old life to hold onto. But there was nothing. All her things, furniture and paintings, were squeezed like Tetris pieces into the back of the truck. We didn’t know it at the time, but a few months later, Barbara would be moved into a senior citizen home.
We left the house empty. Just Barbara and her nurse.
The William J. Jenack Auction Gallery is an aluminum-covered steel frame that looks like a green airplane hangar flanked by mountains in Chester, New York, fifty miles north of Manhattan. It is divided into three large spaces: the Fine Art showroom, the Town & Country showroom, and the sale room set between the two.
William Jenack, 70, and his wife Andrea, a certified gemologist, own the place along with Kevin Decker, who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artifacts. They appraise and inventory everything Ryan and I bring back to the gallery. Everything is siphoned through to the back and stored away. Large items like grandfather clocks, sofas, armoires, and credenzas stay in one of the four trailers behind the gallery. Works of art are stacked by the hundreds on shelves in the back room. Smaller pieces – angelfish skeletons, vintage dental molds, African masks – are lined up along their own special shelves. Items that aren’t worth much are divvied up into boxes and stored upstairs in what is like a morgue of personal belongings. Single items in the world of auctioneering are called “lots.” They can sell on their own, but the things upstairs are called “box lots” – many bidders love the thrill of sifting through a box lot as if they’re a kind of cardboard treasure chest.
It’s a strange feeling having to tell someone that the things they thought were worth a lot aren’t worth much at all. William, after nearly thirty years in the business, says to this day, “It’s difficult to tell someone that her prized possessions are worth a hill of beans.”
William and Andrea were antique collectors for a decade before William began auctioneering in 1988. In those days, they stored their antiques in a garage, and when they’d amassed enough stuff for a big sale, they’d rent a firehouse or church and hold an auction.
William has walked through thousands of homes in the region, appraising people’s things, while coming to know old-timers who collect esoteric mechanical pencils or Edison light bulbs or vintage silhouettes. These types of collectors tend to drive to the gallery with a trunk full of their prized collections in a fit of downsizing. Inevitably, the same people will then preview the upcoming sales, looking for anything to add back to their collection.
On auction day, after everything is catalogued, numbered, and put on display, both in the showroom and on our website, we open the showroom for “preview” – when clients observe the upcoming sale the way one would walk through a museum.
At preview I learn about strange world history from clients. We once had an ancient Roman tear catcher for sale. A client taught me that Roman mourners would cry into bottles and place them in the tombs of those they loved. One ninety-year-old Englishman, always in a suit and cap, has told me the same story at every preview for the last four years – how he worked in a coalmine in England during World War II, how he remembers the sounds of the British warplanes flying overhead filled with bombs. “They sounded heavy,” he’ll say. He remembers the engines flying home later with less drag.
Military-themed sales draw good crowds in any economic climate. We lay out carpets, hang chandeliers, line up rows of shotguns and rifles on the gun racks, and arrange swords and daggers in showcases. William shows up with his grey manicured mustache and the charm of a yacht captain about to take his clients for a three-hour tour through Russian icons, high-end cowboy boots, and Nazi paraphernalia. On pickups we come across more Nazi coins and medals and Mein Kampf copies with personal inscriptions than I ever imagined we would – even in Jewish households. My partner Ryan says he knows of Jewish people who buy Nazi memorabilia just to destroy it. I’ve also heard of Jewish people who buy it as proof to refute Holocaust deniers.
A Filipino woman comes in looking to inspect the Indonesian dagger before the sale starts. She must’ve seen it on our online catalogue and couldn’t wait to hold it. There are two in the sale, but she’s interested in the longer blade that’s shaped like a snake. She unsheathes it, holds it up to the light and counts the curves of the blade.
“Seven,” she says and smiles. She stabs the air with the dagger and twists it into an invisible victim. “Seven curves are good. When you twist it in you, all of your belly comes out.”
Another young woman hovers over the showcase. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, nose-pierced, and she is shy around the swords. Some guy jokes, “You don’t seem like the military dagger type.” An older man in a sleeveless shirt with long white hair and a long white beard, inspecting a Nazi air force officer’s dagger, intervenes. “You never know,” he says. “I have a neighbor and she can put an axe through the center of that picture over there.” His name is Mark Bodnarczuk, and another gentleman at the sale tells me that he is “the sword expert.”
Bodnarczuk laughs. He says he doesn’t need any more swords, yet here he is. His collection started piling up five years ago with a Union Civil War sword. He says it’s a disease. He picks up the three-foot sword of a German Imperial officer – a highly regarded status symbol for pure Aryan members of the Third Reich’s armed forces. Now it’s being passed back and forth between me – I was raised Jewish – and Bodnarczuk, a pleasant man with faded crescent moon tattoos on his arm, who looks like he’d pal around the Renaissance Faire. It’s important for Bodnarczuk to come to the sale in person to feel the blades, see if the scabbards fit, and “look in the nice little red eyes of the lion” on the handle of the Imperial sword.
However, Bodnarczuk came today specifically for the Civil War artillery sword. It is heavy and made of brass with a wide blade that’s just over two feet long. “The idea with these swords,” he says, holding the handle against his chest so the sword points out, “was when you were on your back on the ground, and the cavalry’s coming at you, you’d hold the sword up and hit the horse in the chest.”
A crowd begins to form around the Nazi memorabilia. Some people turn away quickly, like they see someone urinating in public. But there are plenty who’ve come strictly to hold – and bid on – the Nazi swords. Tom Coulter, 72, is an avid collector of German World War II memorabilia. He’s here for the German paratrooper gravity knife, which looks like a small, plain wood handle that’s missing a blade. But the hand guard doubles as a secret button. Earlier, other men asked to see the gravity knife and none could figure out how to open it. Coulter turns it upside-down, clicks the hidden button, and out slides the ten-inch blade. “Gravity,” he says to anyone listening.
William says the appeal of Nazi memorabilia is in the craftsmanship, and collectors are excited by “the whole heraldry of owning something that was involved in that time.” It’s legal to sell Nazi paraphernalia in some military shows and auctions in the United States, but it’s illegal to sell certain Nazi items on eBay. It’s also banned in France, Israel, Austria and Germany.
Coulter tells me to grab the American trench knife – basically a pair of brass knuckles welded to a twelve-inch blade – and the German gravity knife.
“Which one would you want to fight with?” he asks.
My fingers are slipped through the brass knuckles of the trench knife. It’s heavier than the gravity knife.
“The trench knife,” I say.
He points to the gravity knife. “This is practical,” he says. You can cut yourself from your parachute tangled in a tree with it. However, he says pointing to the trench knife, “This is to kill somebody. The back end is for cracking skull. The knuckles are for punching face and this is for stabbing.”
Coulter, who was a marine in Vietnam and had one-third of his lungs removed thanks to Agent Orange – you can hear the damage in his voice – says his house is stuffed with Gestapo rings, German helmets, swords, Luger pistols, and a small painting of a church steeple by Adolf Hitler. He’s traveled the country, and even to Europe, to purchase many of these items. He only visits our gallery when we have a good deal of Nazi pieces in a sale.
“No American stuff?” I ask him.
“Well, they’re just not unique,” he responds. “I have American stuff. I have my Marine bayonets. They’re nice, sure, but the Germans carved eagles into everything.”
“What would you say if someone came over to your house and saw all the swastikas and felt uncomfortable?” I ask.
“I’d say, ‘every weapon is a hate item. They’re all hate items.’” He says it’s for the love of history.
The Nazi daggers are beautifully crafted, but it is hard for me to divorce them from the black and white photos of the Holocaust that are also in this sale – naked prisoners with theirs hands over their genitals standing like skeletons behind barbed wire, and men shoveling human bones into a brick crematorium.
The sale begins and most people follow William into the middle room where he takes his place at his podium. It looks like church. The weapon collectors loiter behind in the showroom, inspecting the weapons one more time, squinting down the barrels of rifles like telescopes. The guns and swords are the headliners of the sale, though it will be a few hours before they’re up for bidding. Weapon-lovers never seem eager to sit through the bidding on pottery, costume jewelry or vintage seltzer bottles.
William auctions off a mechanical baby in a crate. It’s a two-foot glass-eyed doll that was an advertisement for a soap company in the 1940s. All of its limbs used to move, like a baby stuck on its back, but now only one arm and one leg work. “I hope somebody plugged it in for ya,” William says. “He lights up…and he turns his head.”
It goes for $450.
Another item for sale is a vintage Ku Klux Klan panoramic photograph, dated 1925. Hundreds of men and women and children in white robes and pointed hoods stand in front of the nation’s capitol. Not too far in the background, sitting on window ledges, are black children watching the scene. When the photo sells for $225, William looks at it and says, “I haven’t seen that many dunces in one place in a long time.”
William auctions off two hundred lots in two hours before reaching the portion of the sale where certain people are leaning forward, white-knuckled on their bidder number paddles, hoping to win their guns and swords of choice.
Mark Bodnarczuk stands. Tom Coulter pulls his Vietnam vet hat down low. As the auction goes on, others side-glance, trying to see who they’re bidding against. Then there are people like Sal Vargetto who rushes in near the end of the sale, bids on two shotguns, wins, runs into the preview room, takes them off the rack, aims them at the ceiling and pretends to shoot with a long, unlit cigar hanging from his mouth.
Bodnarczuk doesn’t get the brass Civil War artillery sword. It goes for higher than he is willing to spend. But he does buy a Japanese sword. Coulter wins the gravity knife, and I see the Filipino woman leave smiling with the Indonesian dagger in her hand.
The next day we clean up and begin to organize a new sale. There are now antique Russian menorahs in place of the Nazi swords.
What doesn’t sell after a few tries is either donated or brought to the dump – the great American intestine. Everything that winds up here at the Orange County Transfer Station is flattened, cubed and shipped out on trucks heading for the landfill behind it. I’ve seen Darwin’s On The Origins of Species and Suzanne Somers’ Fast & Easy cookbooks destroyed in unison here.
The filled box truck is driven into an enormous shed with a cement floor. There are beat-up American flags on the wall and gnarled teddy bears tied to the grills of dump trucks – things employees have pulled from the trash. The shed has its own atmospheric pressure and smells of thick, hot rotting. A mist falls from the ceiling so the place doesn’t spontaneously combust. There are smashed pianos and old refrigerators and dead televisions and shattered glass and old dirty mattresses, which the man operating the excavator grabs with the claw of his machine and uses as a broom to make way for our new pile of trash.
The dump weighs the box truck on our way in, and subtracts the weight we lose on our way out. Our last trip here was with Barbara Harris’ unwanted stuff. By now we had gone back one last time to clear out her old barns in the backyard. Most of it was in such bad condition it went right to the dump. In five minutes we threw out 3,500 pounds of her life.
There’s a sign at the weigh station when you leave that reads, Thank you for your garbage.
We sweep out the box truck before a new pickup. A trumpet player is dead. His family rented a giant dumpster for everything that won’t be going to auction. His place must be emptied, no evidence left of him whatsoever, to stage the house for sale.
I find his résumé in his office desk. He played with the band on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He played with Sinatra and Buddy Rich. I find studio recordings of him on cassette. I put them in his stereo and let his trumpet echo through the empty house and out the open doors into the street where his neighbors walk by. They do a double take as if their old neighbor is back from the dead to perform one last time.
Once we’ve packed all his sellable stuff in the box truck, we climb into the big dumpster. We jump up and down on his trash to make sure it doesn’t overflow.
It’s a 55-and-up gated community. The neighbors aren’t amused. Chances are we’ll be back soon for them too.
For the past month, my mother and I have been advocating for the deactivation of my father’s pacemaker. Yet despite my parents having taken every measure to ensure that they would control the ends of their lives, two months since a severe stroke destroyed whatever quality of life my father, who was already suffering from advanced dementia, had left, his heart continues to beat against my family’s wishes.
In 2010, the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, the American Geriatrics Society and other prominent groups issued a statement indicating that the deactivation of a pacemaker, an implantable device used to speed up slow heart beats, is ethically permissible. Reaffirmed last year, the statement says, “Legally, carrying out a request to withdraw life-sustaining treatment is neither physician-assisted suicide nor euthanasia.”
Nevertheless, the team of medical professionals at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation has given us the runaround. Most recently, my mother and I met with my father’s team of medical professionals to discuss moving my father into hospice as well as deactivating the pacemaker so that my father could live out his days naturally. During the course of the meeting, my mother, who is my father’s proxy, made clear that this would be my father’s wish.
According to the law, the request is my mother’s prerogative. In 1990, in Cruzan vs. Director, Missouri Department of Health, the Supreme Court ruled that a competent patient could refuse life-sustaining treatments, including nutrition and hydration. This case gave rise to advance directives so that a proxy could carry out the patient’s will. In a later case, the Court affirmed the right of competent patients to refuse therapy.
The medical team agreed to hospice, but has so far refused to carry out the request to deactivate the pacemaker. We have had several long conversations with the medical team, and, while they seem to agree with our desire to give my father a dignified end, they offer confusing explanations as to why they will not carry out my dad’s wishes.
At one point, a staff member told me that because a pacemaker does not prolong life, we should leave it. But my father’s pacemaker is working 53% of the time to correct his condition, known as bradycardia, which can result in heart failure. I fail to see how this device is not prolonging my father’s life or, at the very least, interrupting the possibility for his natural demise.
We are certainly not the first family to confront the medical community’s refusal to deactivate a pacemaker. Katy Butler, author of “The Art of Dying Well,” has written extensively about her efforts to give her father the death he wanted by deactivating his pacemaker. Butler also uncovered other horrors, such as cardiologists recommending pacemakers for elderly people with advanced dementia.
Much of the motivation, Butler noted, seemed to stem from the financial rewards of treating people, even the terminally ill. Simply put there’s no money in death. And yet in its current design, at $450 a day for room and board alone, institutions like the Parker Institute rake in millions annually from people whose lives are being maintained artificially. The medical system could quite literally bankrupt healthy family members to keep a dying one alive.
Although estimates vary, each year approximately 400,000 people — half over age 75 — get implantable cardiac devices, including pacemakers. Primary care doctors, cardiologists, and elder care attorneys should inform people about how these devices can affect their end of life and encourage them to include their wishes in advance directives.
Yet, even if they do, they may hit the same wall of refusal my family has faced. It seems that despite the legal rulings and the ethicists’ writings, doctors are committed to keeping pacemakers ticking.
It’s unfair to the terminally ill and their families that this view prevails. The refusal to deactivate means the sick family member is denied a dignified death, while the need for constant advocacy leaves family members feeling like they are making an unseemly demand.
As the debate about healthcare builds in the run up to the 2020 presidential election, I hope that the candidates will discuss reforms to improve end of life care. There should be dignity in death for the terminally ill and no healthy person should be forced into bankruptcy to keep a loved one alive against his or her will. There are certain people we should spare no expense to keep alive, in our family’s opinion my father is not one of them.
Non-human primates like monkeys and apes appear to have an awareness of death in the same way humans do, scientists have said. After analyzing over 200 years worth of research into how primates deal with death, they found common behaviors emerged—including carrying their dead, defending the deceased from threats and exhibiting a grief-like response.
There are many stories about apes and monkeys grieving for their dead. For example, a BBC documentary in 2017 appeared to show a group of langur monkeys grieving for what they believe is a dead baby—even though it was actually just a robotic spy monkey.
The same year, scientists observed a chimpanzee using tools to clean the body of a deceased group member. A female sat down with the dead male and used a firm stem of grass to clean his teeth. The practice, researchers say, suggests chimps may have a more sophisticated response to death than we currently know.
Andre Gonçalves from Japan’s Kyoto University and Susana Carvalho from the University of Oxford in the U.K. say there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence relating to they way non-human primates deal with death—but a review of the literature to find specific characteristics and behaviors has been lacking.
“For the past two centuries, non-human primates have been reported to inspect, protect, retrieve, carry or drag the dead bodies of their conspecifics and, for nearly the same amount of time, sparse scientific attention has been paid to such behaviours,” they wrote in a study published in Biological Reviews.
In their analysis of 240 reports, Gonçalves and Carvalho showed that specific responses emerge among different non-human primate species. Often this involves carrying the dead around—especially mothers and their dead babies. Species that are unable to grasp objects—such as lemurs and tamarins—are observed trying to carry their dead even though they lack the ability.
They also found that group members defend the bodies of the deceased and returning to the body or site of death: “Such places may hold residual information about the event which can arouse curiosity or emotional distress,” they wrote. This behavior tended to happen when an adult died, rather than a juvenile. The researchers speculate this could relate to attachments, with members needing to re-categorize from living to dead—a behavior they say is essential to the grieving process.
In one anecdote about a family of chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall, a mother named Flo died before her son Flint had become fully independent. After her death, Flint would stare at the nest they shared and returned to the site of her death. He exhibited signs of clinical depression and stopped eating and interacting with other group members. Eventually his immune system became too weak and he also died.
In another case, an adult male howler monkey was observed staying close to the corpse of a female for five days after her death, “suggesting close proximity between these individuals in life.”
“Considering all these findings and given their cognitive abilities, we argue that non-human primates are capable of an implicit awareness of death,” Gonçalves and Carvalho wrote.
They say more research will be needed to confirm whether non-human primates are aware of death—and to what extent they are. “It’s not an all-or-nothing ability,” Gonçalves said in a statement. “Awareness of death includes things such as animate/inanimate distinction, or the sensory and contextual discrimination of living/dead. The concept of death is something we humans acquire between ages three to 10. We can infer that non-human primates have some aspects of death awareness but, thus far, only humans conceptualize it at a higher order.”
The researchers also say further investigation could help shed light on the evolution of our own funeral practices: “Given that there exists a considerable gap in the fossil and archaeological record concerning how early hominins might have interacted with their dead, extant primates may provide valuable insight into how and in which contexts thanatological behaviours would have occurred.”
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words.
By Michael Erard
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Felix’s 53-year-old daughter, Lisa Smartt, kept track of his utterances, writing them down as she sat at his bedside in those final days. Smartt majored in linguistics at UC Berkeley in the 1980s and built a career teaching adults to read and write. Transcribing Felix’s ramblings was a sort of coping mechanism for her, she says. Something of a poet herself (as a child, she sold poems, three for a penny, like other children sold lemonade), she appreciated his unmoored syntax and surreal imagery. Smartt also wondered whether her notes had any scientific value, and eventually she wrote a book, Words on the Threshold, published in early 2017, about the linguistic patterns in 2,000 utterances from 181 dying people, including her father.
Despite the limitations of this book, it’s unique—it’s the only published work I could find when I tried to satisfy my curiosity about how people really talk when they die. I knew about collections of “last words,” eloquent and enunciated, but these can’t literally show the linguistic abilities of the dying. It turns out that vanishingly few have ever examined these actual linguistic patterns, and to find any sort of rigor, one has to go back to 1921, to the work of the American anthropologist Arthur MacDonald.
To assess people’s “mental condition just before death,” MacDonald mined last-word anthologies, the only linguistic corpus then available, dividing people into 10 occupational categories (statesmen, philosophers, poets, etc.) and coding their last words as sarcastic, jocose, contented, and so forth. MacDonald found that military men had the “relatively highest number of requests, directions, or admonitions,” while philosophers (who included mathematicians and educators) had the most “questions, answers, and exclamations.” The religious and royalty used the most words to express contentment or discontentment, while the artists and scientists used the fewest.
MacDonald’s work “seems to be the only attempt to evaluate last words by quantifying them, and the results are curious,” wrote the German scholar Karl Guthke in his book Last Words, on Western culture’s long fascination with them. Mainly, MacDonald’s work shows that we need better data about verbal and nonverbal abilities at the end of life. One point that Guthke makes repeatedly is that last words, as anthologized in multiple languages since the 17th century, are artifacts of an era’s concerns and fascinations about death, not “historical facts of documentary status.” They can tell us little about a dying person’s actual ability to communicate.
Some contemporary approaches move beyond the oratorical monologues of yore and focus on emotions and relationships. Books such as Final Gifts, published in 1992 by the hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley, and Final Conversations, published in 2007 by Maureen Keeley, a Texas State University communications-studies scholar, and Julie Yingling, professor emerita at Humboldt State University, aim to sharpen the skills of the living for having important, meaningful conversations with the dying. Previous centuries’ focus on last words has ceded space to the contemporary focus on last conversations and even nonverbal interactions. “As the person gets weaker and sleepier, communication with others often becomes more subtle,” Callanan and Kelley write. “Even when people are too weak to speak, or have lost consciousness, they can hear; hearing is the last sense to fade.”
I spoke to Maureen Keeley shortly after the death of George H. W. Bush, whose last words (“I love you, too,” he reportedly told his son, George W. Bush) were widely reported in the media, but she said they should properly be seen in the context of a conversation (“I love you,” the son had said first) as well as all the prior conversations with family members leading up to that point.
At the end of life, Keeley says, the majority of interactions will be nonverbal as the body shuts down and the person lacks the physical strength, and often even the lung capacity, for long utterances. “People will whisper, and they’ll be brief, single words—that’s all they have energy for,” Keeley said. Medications limit communication. So does dry mouth and lack of dentures. She also noted that family members often take advantage of a patient’s comatose state to speak their piece, when the dying person cannot interrupt or object.
Many people die in such silence, particularly if they have advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s that robbed them of language years earlier. For those who do speak, it seems their vernacular is often banal. From a doctor I heard that people often say, “Oh fuck, oh fuck.” Often it’s the names of wives, husbands, children. “A nurse from the hospice told me that the last words of dying men often resembled each other,” wrote Hajo Schumacher in a September essay in Der Spiegel. “Almost everyone is calling for ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mama’ with the last breath.”
It’s still the interactions that fascinate me, partly because their subtle interpersonal textures are lost when they’re written down. A linguist friend of mine, sitting with his dying grandmother, spoke her name. Her eyes opened, she looked at him, and died. What that plain description omits is how he paused when he described the sequence to me, and how his eyes quivered.
But there are no descriptions of the basics of last words or last interactions in the scientific literature. The most linguistic detail exists about delirium, which involves a loss of consciousness, the inability to find words, restlessness, and a withdrawal from social interaction. Delirium strikes people of all ages after surgery and is also common at the end of life, a frequent sign of dehydration and over-sedation. Delirium is so frequent then, wrote the New Zealand psychiatrist Sandy McLeod, that “it may even be regarded as exceptional for patients to remain mentally clear throughout the final stages of malignant illness.” About half of people who recover from postoperative delirium recall the disorienting, fearful experience. In a Swedish study, one patient recalled that “I certainly was somewhat tired after the operation and everything … and I did not know where I was. I thought it became like misty, in some way … the outlines were sort of fuzzy.” How many people are in a similar state as they approach death? We can only guess.
We have a rich picture of the beginnings of language, thanks to decades of scientific research with children, infants, and even babies in the womb. But if you wanted to know how language ends in the dying, there’s next to nothing to look up, only firsthand knowledge gained painfully.
After her father died, Lisa Smartt was left with endless questions about what she had heard him say, and she approached graduate schools, proposing to study last words academically. After being rebuffed, she began interviewing family members and medical staff on her own. That led her to collaborate with Raymond Moody Jr., the Virginia-born psychiatrist best known for his work on “near-death experiences” in a 1975 best-selling book, Life After Life. He has long been interested in what he calls “peri-mortal nonsense” and helped Smartt with the work that became Words on the Threshold, based on her father’s utterances as well as ones she’d collected via a website she called the Final Words Project.
One common pattern she noted was that when her father, Felix, used pronouns such as it and this, they didn’t clearly refer to anything. One time he said, “I want to pull these down to earth somehow … I really don’t know … no more earth binding.” What did these refer to? His sense of his body in space seemed to be shifting. “I got to go down there. I have to go down,” he said, even though there was nothing below him.
He also repeated words and phrases, often ones that made no sense. “The green dimension! The green dimension!” (Repetition is common in the speech of people with dementia and also those who are delirious.) Smartt found that repetitions often expressed themes such as gratitude and resistance to death. But there were also unexpected motifs, such as circles, numbers, and motion. “I’ve got to get off, get off! Off of this life,” Felix had said.
Smartt says she’s been most surprised by narratives in people’s speech that seem to unfold, piecemeal, over days. Early on, one man talked about a train stuck at a station, then days later referred to the repaired train, and then weeks later to how the train was moving northward.
“If you just walk through the room and you heard your loved one talk about ‘Oh, there’s a boxing champion standing by my bed,’ that just sounds like some kind of hallucination,” Smartt says. “But if you see over time that that person has been talking about the boxing champion and having him wearing that, or doing this, you think, Wow, there’s this narrative going on.” She imagines that tracking these story lines could be clinically useful, particularly as the stories moved toward resolution, which might reflect a person’s sense of the impending end.
In Final Gifts, the hospice nurses Callanan and Kelley note that “the dying often use the metaphor of travel to alert those around them that it is time for them to die.” They quote a 17-year-old, dying of cancer, distraught because she can’t find the map. “If I could find the map, I could go home! Where’s the map? I want to go home!” Smartt noted such journey metaphors as well, though she writes that dying people seem to get more metaphorical in general. (However, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s have difficulty understanding figurative language, and anthropologists who study dying in other cultures told me that journey metaphors aren’t prevalent everywhere.)
Even basic descriptions of language at the end of life would not only advance linguistic understanding but also provide a host of benefits to those who work with the dying, and to the dying themselves. Experts told me that a more detailed road map of changes could help counter people’s fear of death and provide them with some sense of control. It could also offer insight into how to communicate better with the dying. Differences in cultural metaphors could be included in training for hospice nurses who may not share the same cultural frame as their patients.
But studying language and interaction at the end of life remains a challenge, because of cultural taboos about death and ethical concerns about having scientists at a dying person’s bedside. Experts also pointed out to me that each death is unique, which presents a variability that science has difficulty grappling with.
And in the health-care realm, the priorities are defined by doctors. “I think that work that is more squarely focused on describing communication patterns and behaviors is much harder to get funded because agencies like NCI prioritize research that directly reduces suffering from cancer, such as interventions to improve palliative-care communication,” says Wen-ying Sylvia Chou, a program director in the Behavioral Research Program at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, who oversees funding on patient-doctor communication at the end of life.
Despite the faults of Smartt’s book (it doesn’t control for things such as medication, for one thing, and it’s colored by an interest in the afterlife), it takes a big step toward building a corpus of data and looking for patterns. This is the same first step that child-language studies took in its early days. That field didn’t take off until natural historians of the 19th century, most notably Charles Darwin, began writing down things their children said and did. (In 1877, Darwin published a biographical sketch about his son, William, noting his first word: mum.) Such “diary studies,” as they were called, eventually led to a more systematic approach, and early child-language research has itself moved away from solely studying first words.
“Famous last words” are the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death—one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes. “The process of dying is still very profound, but it’s a very different kind of profoundness,” says Bob Parker, the chief compliance officer of the home health agency Intrepid USA. “Last words—it doesn’t happen like the movies. That’s not how patients die.” We are beginning to understand that final interactions, if they happen at all, will look and sound very different.
The world got an idea recently from the 92-year-old Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who popularized mindfulness and meditation in the U.S. The monk returned to his home in Vietnam to pass his remaining years. Many admired his desire to live his remaining time in peace and dignity.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego recently did a literature search to understand what Americans might consider to be a “good death” or “successful dying.” As can be expected, their findings varied. People’s views were determined by their religious, social and cultural norms and influences. The researchers urged health care providers, caregivers and the lay community to have open dialogues about preferences for the dying process.
Genetics, biological factors and lifestyle behaviors, such as diet and smoking, help explain a portion of these differences. However, researchers are still learning how race-related social experiences and physical environments affect health, illness and mortality.
Access to health care
factor is that African Americans have historically underutilized preventive medicine and health care services. They also delay seeking routine, necessary health care – or may not follow medical advice.
One study found that during an average month, 35% fewer blacks visited a physician’s office, and 27% fewer visited an outpatient clinic compared with whites.
“The only time I go to the doctor is when something is really hurting. But otherwise, I don’t even know my doctor’s name,” said a young African American male during a research study in Chicago, Illinois.
In this clinical study, 399 African American men, who had already contracted syphilis, were told that they were receiving free health care from the government. In fact, doctors, knowing their critical condition, were awaiting their deaths to subsequently conduct autopsies and study the disease’s progression.
Even though penicillin had been proven to treat syphilis by 1947, these men were denied the treatment.
J.P. Trottier was with the Ottawa Paramedic Service for 36 years – 21 as a frontline paramedic and 15 as public information officer. He retired in January 2017.
“I don’t know how many deaths I’ve seen, but it’s in the hundreds. I remember one shift doing three vital-signs-absent calls in a row. That was a busy eight hours.
“You just never know where you’re going to be in five minutes. Are you going to be in the middle of a crime scene? Are you going to be in somebody’s living room, somebody with abdominal pain? Somebody having a heart attack?
“Sometimes, it’s just the daily grind. It can be very humdrum, and then all of a sudden your next shift will be just crazy. You’ll do a shooting, you’ll do an elderly gentleman who’s collapsed at home and his vital signs are absent, you’ll do a childbirth call … you’ll do a whole bunch of different things.”
“You have some really horrible moments in the job, and you have some absolutely spectacular moments. Paramedics have what they call the holy-shit call. They take a look at the person and they know they’re in trouble — that that person is in deep trouble and probably minutes from dying. We call that the holy-shit call. It’s like, get to work. And you can tell after a little bit of experience — you walk into a room and look at somebody. And then it becomes a bit mechanical; your training kicks in and you don’t really think about it. But when you see them like that and 10 minutes later you’ve given your medication and taken your vital signs, or your partner’s taking the vital signs and you’ve slapped the oxygen on them or maybe put in an IV and put the medication in when all the vital signs are OK and off you go. And 10 minutes later when they’re looking much better, it’s an amazing thing to see. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s absolutely the best part of the job.”
“You don’t forget many of them. The difficult ones you don’t forget. I tell people that I’ve got a busload of people up here in my head, waiting to step out. It’s not being haunted; it’s just that you will never be able to forget that eight-year-old boy who played chicken with a train and lost. You’ll never be able to forget that. If anybody were to come to me and say, ‘Oh, I can handle it … ” Yeah, OK, maybe you can handle it differently than I can, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to forget that. The young boy who comes home from school for lunch and finds his mother dead upstairs because she put a shotgun in her mouth. You’ll never be able to forget that. Never. But they don’t haunt me.
“Very early in my career I had one of those horrible calls – it was a young girl, six or seven years old, crossing the street and was struck by a car. She died en route, and every time I drive by there, it’s like, ‘This is where it happened.’ And it’s no more than that. But they’re with you.”
“There’s that horrible side where you can’t help … they’re in a car crash, pinned, and the paramedics are trying to put the IV in and they’re doing a whole bunch of different things, and you’re waiting and waiting, and the blood pressure is coming down and down and down, and you can’t stem the bleeding because you can’t access where the injury is.
“So yeah, sometimes you can’t resuscitate them, and that’s the moment that you turn your attention to the family. They’re not the patients, you’re not there specifically for them or because of them, but all paramedics will do this; they will turn their attention to the family.
“I used to do presentations for career days at high schools, and they would ask what’s the most important thing about your character that would make you a good paramedic, and I would say two things. The first was that you really have to be a caring person, because that’s what you do. That’s your job, you’re caring for people — their emotional needs, their physical needs. And the second part is good communications skills. You must have good communications skills because of instances like this, where a family member has passed away and you need to inform them. And don’t use any jargon, don’t use any of that nonsense. ‘I’m sorry he passed away. We couldn’t do anything.’ And you don’t give them a lot of info, because they’ll forget most of it after you tell them.
“We have to be careful what we tell them, because they will remember that moment, forever. It really demands respect, and I don’t care if they’re gang members or whatever the case may be. We don’t care; it’s a patient and they have friends or family, and there’s a mother or father somewhere, maybe, or children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and all of them will be affected by this.”
“I would often turn my attention to people’s rooms to give me an idea of the life they led. The older generation especially will have a lot of photographs on their dressers or in the bedroom. Even if I don’t know these people, it kind of puts you there. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. Look at the cars they were driving. It gives you a bit of a glance at their lives. There are pictures of their children and grandchildren. It kind of gives you a quick bio of them.
“The ones that really stand out for me are ones where someone’s standing next to a Spitfire, because you know they served. Did he fly planes? Was he in the war? Was he a mechanic? You can sometimes ask the family a little bit about them — you have to tread carefully there, because they may not take it very well. But in some instances I was able to ask the family. ‘Oh, he served?’ — because there’s a picture of him. ‘Yes, and he went to this battle and that battle,’ and of course they’re proud of that. And sometimes I take a minute to thank them for their service to their country. Sometimes you’ll see their medals on the wall, and you can talk about that a little bit.
“It can be fascinating. You don’t know about this person or the life they led, if they discovered a cure for something. You just never know.”
“Has my view of death changed over the years? Yes. I think just because of the sheer number of calls that we do with death and near-death … a patient you were able to get back from the grip of death that they were in. The shootings, the stabbings, the crib deaths — Sudden Infant Death Syndrome — for sure, gave me a better understanding of death. You’re more aware of death and what it means and why it happens, a little bit — we can never know why, really. But it gives you a better appreciation of it, and thus a better understanding of it.”
“You see a lot of circumstances. The suicides are sad. And you also see the murder-suicides, and those are weird. There was one I did where this man had custody of his child during the weekend, and he decided on Sunday night that the child was not going back home to his mother, and threw him off the balcony and then jumped himself.
“So you get to the scene and you’ve got this to deal with. And you only know the circumstances after the fact, but you have a damn good clue that at three o’clock in the morning, when the OC Transpo driver found him when going out to his shift, that the kid, maybe two or three years old, didn’t wake up fully dressed at three o’clock in the morning to jump off of the balcony. So now you’ve got that anger issue. You want to kill yourself? That’s somewhat understandable. But to take an innocent child away from his mother and his life? It’s just … it’s weird. There’s this brain storm happening there in your head, in my head, that’s very difficult to deal with and make sense of. So those are very difficult to do.