- . . . approach thy grave Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams. [William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis.”]
- Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. [Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music.”]
We know that we will die someday and we see death come to others. This is the third great sorrow of the soul.Our greatest artists have captured this sorrow in their work. In Mahler’s 6th Symphony, for example, two of the three leaden hammer blows announce death and the other foreshadows it. While alienation and powerlessness are themes that run seamlessly throughout literature, both true and fictional, mortality receives more explicit treatment, and so I offer some works to read today and some visual images to contemplate.
- Sushila Blackman, Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die: Death Stories of Tibetan, Hindu & Zen Masters (Shambhala, 2005).
- Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality (Knopf, 2007).
- John Aberth, The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-50 (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).
- John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (HarperCollins, 2005).
- David Wendall Moller, Confronting Death: Values, Institutions, and Human Mortality (Oxford University Press, 1996).
- Salmon Akhtar, The Wound of Mortality: Fear, Denial, and Acceptance of Death (Margaret S. Mahler Series) (Jason Aronson, 2010).
- Michael K. Bartalos, Speaking of Death: America's New Sense of Mortality (Praeger, 2008).
- Beverly Clack, Sex and Death: A Reappraisal of Human Mortality (Polity, 2002).
- John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011): “Gray captures the hilarious audacity and absurdity of the search for immortality, one that could be conceived only by such charmingly quixotic creatures as human beings.”
- David R. Dow, Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life (Twelve, 2014): “. . . a meditation on the boundaries of control.”
- Erika Hayasaki, The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014): “The book’s strength lies in the well-observed details of the lives portrayed, and in the recognition that the work Bowe and her students are doing is messy, necessary stuff.”
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt & Company, 2018): “An exploration of mankind’s quest for existence beyond this mortal coil.”
- Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 1997).
- David M. Craig, Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller's Fiction (Wayne State University Press, 2000).
- Robert Pack, Affirming Limits: Essays on Mortality, Choice, and Poetic Form (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985).
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Parallax Press, 2002).
- David Farrell Krell, Intimations of Mortality: Time, Truth, and Finitude in Heidegger's Thinking of Being (Penn State University Press, 1986).
- Judith L. Lief, Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality (Shambhala, 2001).
- Christine Montross, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab (Penguin Press, 2007).
- Lawrence J. Schneiderman, M.D., Embracing Our Mortality: Hard Choices in an Age of Medical Miracles (Oxford University Press, 2008).
- Jeffrey Kaufman, Awareness of Mortality (Baywood Publishing Company, 1995).
- Harry Willson, Myth and Mortality: Testing the Stories (Amador Publishers, 2007).
- Jean-Michel Basquiat, Riding with Death (1988)
- Andy Warhol, Skull
- Frido Kahlo, Thinking About Death (1943)
- Paul Klee, Death and Fire (1940)
- Salvador Dali, Ballerina in a Death's Head (1939)
- Frido Kahlo, Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone) (1938)
- Salvador Dali, Knights of Death (1937)
- Salvador Dali, The Horseman of Death (1935)
- Marc Chagall, Abraham Weeping for Sarah (1931)
- Arshile Gorky, Still Life with Skull (c. 1927)
- Gustav Klimt, Death and Life (1908-16)
- Edvard, By the Deathbed (Fever) (1915)
- Egon Schiele, The Self-Seers (Death and Man) (1911)
- Pablo Picasso, Composition with a Skull (1908)
- Konstantin Somov, Harleiquin and Death (1907)
- Pablo Picasso, Harlequin's Death (1906)
- Boris Kustodiev, Introduction. Picture from the magazine Vampire (1905)
- Paul Cezanne, Pyramid of Skulls (ca. 1901)
- Kathe Kolwitz, Death (1893)
- Edvard Munch, Death in the Sickroom (1893)
- Vincent van Gogh, Skeleton (c. 1886)
- Vincent van Gogh, Skull with Burning Cigarette (1885)
- Honore Daumier, Two Doctors and Death (1800s)
- Paul Cezanne, Still Life, with Skull, Candle and Book (1866)
- Edouard Manet, The Dead Toreador (1865)
- Francisco Goya, Love and Death (1799)
- Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Time Arrested by Death (baroque)
- Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego (1638-40)
- Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin (1601)
- Paul Bruegel the elder, The Triumph of Death (1562)
- Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality (1816).
- Dara Horn, Eternal Life: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018): “ . . . what if rolled into endless life were endless youth, and we kept looking and feeling our best, century after century? Would we still, like the Cumaean Sibyl, wish to die? Yup. This is the answer provided by the hero of Dara Horn’s captivating new novel, ‘Eternal Life” (I do not agree.)
- Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End: A Novel (Random House, 2019): this novel on grieving “takes the form of an imagined conversation between a mother and her dead son.”
- John Green, The Fault Is In Our Stars: A Novel (Dutton Books, 2012): “Hazel Grace is a 16-year-old with cancer. At a patient support group she meets 17-year-old Augustus, who’s already lost a leg to cancer. Together they pursue a mysteriously missing writer all the way to Amsterdam, fall in love and, of course, face their own very real mortality. Reading this book has become a rite of passage for some kids, and it’s easy to see why.”
- Joyce Carol Oates, Breathe: A Novel (Ecco, 2021): “Like many a grieving spouse, she sees her dead husband everywhere, only her sightings are outright hallucinations. She has false memories of a botched bone marrow transplant in which she ends up paralyzed. She gets a voice mail message that Gerard hasn’t died; it’s all been a terrible mistake.”
- Charles Baxter, The Sun Collective: A Novel (Pantheon 2020): “Characters Protesting the Times, When the Real Problem Is Time Itself”.
- Alison Bechdel, The Secret to Superhuman Strength: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021): “It is her own mortality she turns to, and all the questions that work and exercise have helped her evade.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Other works on mortality:
- Schubert, String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, Op. posth., D 810 (“Death and the Maiden”) (Der Tod und das Mädchen)
- Bedřich Smetana composed his Piano Trio in G Minor, 15 (1855), in mourning over the death of his four-year-old daughter from scarlet fever.
- Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor, 138 (1970)
- Fauré, Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, 80 (1898): an ode to Mélisande, who dies in the final movement. That movement was played at Fauré’s funeral.
- Liszt, Héroïde funèbre, (Poème symphonique 8), S102 (1854)
- Kenny Werner, No Beginning, No End: the composer's commemoration of his teenage daughter's tragic death in an automobile accident
- Dave Douglas Quintet, Be Still My Soul – the jazz trumpeter’s moving tribute to his deceased wife
- AMM, The Crypt
- Gavin Bryars, “After the Requiem” album: brilliantly conceived and orchestrated, these compositions evoke an imagined twilight of death.
- Nordheim, Epitaffio (Epitaph), for orchestra & electronic instruments (1963)
- Dupré, Lamento, comments musically on the death of a three-year-old child.
- Barnson, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying: 1. Praeludium; 2. Ricercar; 3. Passacaglia – the music evokes the spiritual pain of impending
- Smetana, Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 (performances with Oistrakh, Suk and Kavakos)
- Janáček, Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From the Street”), JW VIII/19 (1905), in honor of a man who was bayoneted during demonstrations in support of a university
- Shostakovich composed his Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944), in honor of Ivan Sollertinsky, who had just died.
- Berg, Violin Concerto , “To the Memory of an Angel” (1935)
- Hartmann, Concerto funèbre (Funeral Concerto) for Violin and String Orchestra (1939)
- Herrmann, Echoes for String Quartet (1965)
- Mozart, Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (here are links to performances conducted by Karajan, Böhm and Giulini)
- Berlioz, Grande Messe des morts (Requiem), Op. 5 (performances conducted by Davis, Albrecht and Abbado)
- Fauré, Requiem in D minor, Op. 48 (performances conducted by Shaw, Rutter and Willcocks)
- Dvořák, Requiem in B flat minor, Op. 89, B165 (performances conducted by Allemandi, Krygeland Jansons)
- Verdi, Requiem (performances conducted by Muti, Mazzoli, Karajan (1949) and Keilberth)
- Duruflé, Requiem, Op. 9 (performances conducted by Plasson, Spanjaardand Piquemal)
- Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 (performances conducted by Klemperer, Abbado and Gardiner)
- Ockeghem, Requiem (performances conducted by Holten, Pérès and Hillier)
- Victoria, Requiem (performance conducted by Christophers, Phillips and Kite-Powell)
- Suppé, Requiem (performance conducted by Meyer)
- Weill, Das Berliner Requiem (Berlin Requiem) (1928)
- On her album ented “Eternal”, Chris McNulty draws on memories of her son, who died at the age of 30.
Film and Stage
- The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet): Ingmar Bergman masterful contemplation of death
- The Magician, Bergman’s cinematic “Slip-Sliding Away”
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Over the course of six progressively dark vignettes, the unforgettably quirky Coen brothers portray death first as a joke, then as a stark reality; by the end, if you have been paying attention, you realize that it has been a stark reality all along.
And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.
To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes,
I see the elder-hand pressing receiving supporting,
I recline by the sills of the exquisite flexible doors,
And mark the outlet, and mark the relief and escape.
And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish'd breasts of melons.
And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns--O grass of graves--O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?
Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the soughing twilight,
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk--toss on the black stems that decay in the muck,
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.
I ascend from the moon,
I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.
- John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud”
- William Cullen Bryant, “Thanatopsis”
- Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
- Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music”
- John Keats, “When I Have Fears”
- Robert Frost, “Ghost House” (analysis)
- Robert Frost, “Spoils of the Dead”
- Pablo Neruda, “Death Alone”
- Theodore Roethke, “The Far Field”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Elizabeth Childers”
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Scholfield Huxley”
- Seamus Heaney, “Mid-Term Break”
- Roger McGough, “Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death”
- Roger McGough, “Soil”
- John Keats, “His Last Sonnet”
- Wallace Stevens, “The Man On the Dump” (analysis)
- Dylan Thomas, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (1934)
Books of poems:
- Michael Palmer, Little Elegies for Sister Satan (New Directions, 2021): “These are poems about confronting the end, the end of one’s own time and time in general, about repetition . . .”