A third great spiritual pain is that we and everyone will die.
- . . . 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).
- Henry Marsh, And Finally: Matters of Life and Death (St. Martin’s Press, 2023): “In his most recent book, the physician becomes a patient, confronting a diagnosis that will probably end his life. . . . He finds himself returning in this book to philosophical questions about consciousness and fear of death, though he does so through narrative, not argument, his skills honed by years of storytelling as a clinician recounting case histories.”
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.”
- Jacqueline Bublitz, Before You Knew My Name: A Novel (Sphere, 2021): “Alice is our narrator, watching events unfold after her murder. For a novel with a dead narrator, however, 'Before You Knew My Name' crackles with life and energy.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Gustav Mahler's daughter died at the age of four. He had already composed Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) (1901-1904) (approx. 24-28’). He later admitted that he could not have composed it after she died. “Written between 1901 and 1904, the cycle comes at a transitional point in Mahler's career as he was moving away from the experimentalism of his earlier symphonies for voices and orchestra towards the darker abstraction of the Fifth and Sixth.” Yet Mahler looked on the bright side, considering the subject matter: “Rückert wrote 425 Kindertotenlieder; a later edition added an extra 18. Mahler chose five. Russell, who argues that Mahler was almost as skilled in literature as he was in music, says that Mahler unerringly picked out those Kindertotenlieder that deal with the theme of light, which is explicit in 1 through 4 and unmistakable in 5 (it is worth pointing out that only 36 of the 425 Kindertotenlieder deal with the subject of light, and Kindertotenlieder's 1 through 4 come from this subset).” Top performances are by Ferrier, with Walter, in 1949; Ferrier, with Klemperer, in 1951; Flagstad, with Boult, in 1957; Fischer-Dieskau, with Böhm, in 1963; Baker, with Barbirolli, in 1967 ***; Hampson, with Bernstein, in 1986; and Terfel, with Sinopoli, in 1992.
Bedřich Smetana composed his Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 15, JB 1:64 (1855) (approx. 29-30’), in mourning over the death of his four-year-old daughter from scarlet fever. He later wrote: “The death of my eldest daughter, an exceptionally talented child, motivated me to compose... my Trio in G minor.” It “was Smetana’s first great achievement as a composer, inspired by a specific event of tragedy. On June 9, 1854, the Smetanas’ second daughter, Gabriela, died, and on September 6, 1855, Bedřiška followed her to the grave. Thanks to her musical aptitude, her father had particularly adored her, and he was devastated by the loss.” Top performances are by Joachim Trio in 1998, Weiss-Kaplan-Newman Trio in 2011, Trio Wanderer in 2011, Sitkovetsky Trio in 2014, Trio con Brio Copenhagen in 2015, Trifonov-Kavakos-Capuçon in 2016, and Oliver Schnyder Trio in 2022.
Olivier Messiaen, Quotuor pour la fin de temps (Quartet for the End of Time) (1941) (approx. 46-52’): “The inevitability of death, the vicissitudes of time and the hope of transcendence. These themes and more come together to make Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, one of the unquestioned chamber-music masterpieces of the 20th century.” Messiaen had been conscripted into the French army in World War II, then was captured by Germans and imprisoned. The war and his experiences in it inspired this work. It consists of eight movements. Top performances are by: Peter Serkin, Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry & Richard Stolzman in 1976; Wolfgang Meyer, Christoph Poppen, Manuel Fischer-Dieskau & Yvonne Loriod in 1991; Gil Shaham, Paul Meyer, Jian Wang, & Miang-Whung Chung in 1999; Hebrides Ensemble in 2008; Trio Wanderer & Pascal Moraguès in 2008; Martin Fröst, Lucas Debargue, Torleif Thedeen & Janine Jansen in 2017; David Krakauer, Jonathan Crow, Matt Haimovitz & Geoffrey Burleson in 2017; and Christina Åstrand, Henrik Dam Thomsen, Per Salo & Johnny Tessier in 2020.
Sergey Rachmaninoff, Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909) (approx. 19-24’): “In 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov saw a black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin. The haunting dream image depicts a solitary rowboat carrying a coffin, bound for a desolate, rocky island. The scene suggests the mythological River Styx and the transition of a recently deceased soul to the afterlife.” Top performances are conducted by Rachmaninoff in 1929, Mitropoulos in 1945, Svetlanov in 1968, Andrew Davis in 1998, Jansons in 1999, and Wilson in 2022.
Franz Liszt, Totentanz (Dance of the Dead, or The Dance of Death), for piano & orchestra, S. 126, R. 457 (1849, rev. 1853 & 1857) (approx. 15'), “is a fiery work for solo piano and orchestra by Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. The work is primarily based on the Dies irae melody, which Liszt takes and develops into a powerful set of variations. Liszt was known for being strangely obsessed by death, with him visiting hospitals, asylums and prisons to see those condemned to die. This fascination is reflected in a number of his works such as La lugubre gondola and Totentanz.” “Liszt specifically seems to have been inspired by Hans Holbein the Younger’s Todtentanz, a series of woodcut prints that depict the age-old theme of equality before death: in Holbein’s series, Death, personified as a skeleton, comes for all, from the greatest of the great to the lowliest of the low.” “Liszt’s biographer, Lina Ramann, claims that the work was inspired by The Triumph of Death, a fresco Liszt saw in the Campo Santo during a visit to Pisa.” They agree, however, that it is about death, as is obvious from the title. Liszt also composed a version for solo piano, S. 525/R. 188 (1857). Best recorded performances of that are by Arnoldo Cohen in 1996; and Valentina Lisitsa in 2008. Top recorded performances of the original work, for piano and orchestra, are by Sanromá & Fiedler in 1937; Bächer & Georgescu in 1952; Lewenthal & Mackerras in 1969; Cziffra & György Cziffra, Jr., in 1972; Bolet & Iván Fischer in 1984; Freire & Plasson in 1994 ***; Hamelin & Sloane in 2007; and Nebolsin & Vasily Petrenko in 2007.
Other works on mortality:
- Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944) (approx. 23-31’), in honor of Ivan Sollertinsky, who had just died.
- Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Minor, Op. 138 (1970) (approx. 19-24’): “The coda of the quartet, played as a sad lament by the viola over 30 bars and its incredible end, remain in the memory long after the work has finished. . . . (The) terrifying conclusion has been compared by Judith Kuhn to 'the similar crescendo to nothingness that follows Wozzeck's murder of Marie, in Act 3, Scene 2 of Alban Berg's opera'. Senseless death in a brutalizing and repressive system.”
- Gabriel Fauré, Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op. 80 (1898) (approx. 18-20’), “is about a grownup living in a world otherwise inhabited by the senile and the infantile, and being driven mad by them.” “Set in the melancholy key of D minor with modal inflections, (the final movement) is a solemn funeral procession.” That final movement was played at Fauré’s funeral.
- Franz Liszt, Héroïde funèbre, Poème symphonique No. 8, S. 102 (1854) (approx. 18-27’): “The originating event of Liszt’s composition was the second French Revolution of 1830, which overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X and the gaining of the throne, as a constitutional monarch, by his cousin Louis Philippe . . .”
- Arne Nordheim, Epitaffio (Epitaph), for orchestra & electronic instruments (1963) (approx. 11’)
- Marcel Dupré, Lamento in B-flat Minor, Op. 24 (1826) (approx. 6-10’), comments musically on the death of a three-year-old child.
- Matthew Barnson, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying (2012) (approx. 23’): the music evokes the spiritual pain of impending death.
- Leoš Janáček, Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From the Street”), JW VIII/19 (1905) (approx. 10-13’), in honor of a man who was bayoneted during demonstrations in support of a university
- Alban Berg, Violin Concerto, “To the Memory of an Angel” (1935) (approx. 26-28’)
- Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Concerto funèbre (Funeral Concerto) for Violin and String Orchestra (1939) (approx. 20-21’)
- Bernard Herrmann, Echoes for String Quartet (1965) (approx. 22’), is “an elegiac work of immediate melodic appeal.”
- Laci Boldemann, 4 Epitaphs for soprano and strings, Op. 10 (1952) (approx. 14’)
- Johannes Ockeghem, Requiem (Missa de Profunctis) (late 1400s) (approx. 25-30’): top recordings are by Hilliard Ensemble in 1984, Ensemble Organum in 1992, Cappella Pratensis in 2012, and Diabolus in Musica in 2018.
- Tomás Luis de Victoria, Requiem (1605) (approx. 42-50’): top recorded performances are conducted by Christophers, Phillips and Kite-Powell.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (1791) (approx. 53-64’): top recorded performances are conducted by Böhm in 1971, Karajan in 1976, Giulini in 1979, Karajan in 1986, Gardiner in 1987, Solti in 1991, Mehta in 1994, Celibidache in 1995, Abbado in 1999, and Jacobs in 2017.
- Hector Berlioz, top recorded performances are conducted by Abravanel in 1969, Inbal in 1988, McCreesh in 2010, and Pappano in 2019 ***. (Requiem), Op. 5 (1837) (approx. 80-97’):
- Franz von Suppé, Requiem in D minor (1855) (60-76’): an excellent performance has been conducted by Schaller in 2013.
- Johannes Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem), Op. 45 (1868) (approx. 65-80’): top recorded performances are conducted by Kempe in 1955, Klemperer in 1961, Karajan in 1976, Sawallisch in 1995, Gardiner in 2008, and Harding in 2019.
- Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem (1874) (approx. 78-94’): top recorded performances are conducted by Toscanini in 1940, Fricsay in 1954, Karajan in 1967, Muti in 1979, Abbado in 2001, and Temirkanov in 2011.
- Gabriel Fauré, Requiem in D minor, Op. 48 (1887) (approx. 36-42’): top recorded performances are conducted by Rutter in 1984, Herreweghe in 2002, Christophers in 2007, Equilbey in 2008, and Short in 2012.
- Antonin Dvořák, Requiem in B-flat minor, Op. 89, B165 (1890) (approx. 95-104’): top performances are conducted by Ančerl in 1959, Kertész in 1969, Sawallisch in 1985, and Wit in 2014.
- Kurt Weill, Das Berliner Requiem (The Berlin Requiem) (1928) (approx. 19-22’): top recorded performances are conducted by Atherton in 1976, and Sund in 1996.
- Maurice Duruflé, Requiem, Op. 9 (1947, rev. 1961) (approx. 39-47’): top recorded performances are conducted by Andrew Davis in 1977, and Graden in 1983.
Distinguished from black metal, death metal is explicitly about death, as revealed by the names of death metal groups. This genre of music is focused on death, and simultaneously on alienation. Death metal is recognized as a subculture, with political implications; has drawn attention of musicologists; and has been called “Sweden’s most lethal cultural export”. Top death metal groups, with links to their playlists and leading albums, include:
- Death, with its extensive playlist, including its “Symbolic” album (1995) (77’);
- Cannibal Corpse, with its playlist, including its “Tomb of the Mutilated” album (1992) (39’);
- Obituary, with its playlist, including its “Cause of Death” album (1990) (53’);
- Morbid Angel, with its playlist, including its “Altars of Madness” album (1989) (35’);
- Deicide, with its playlist, including its “Deicide” album (1990) (34’);
- Suffocation, with its playlist, including its “Effigy of the Forgotten” album (1991) (38’);
- Carcass, with its playlist, including its “Heartwork” album (1993) (93’).
- Kenny Werner, “No Beginning, No End” (2010) (approx. 48’): Wheeler’s commemoration of his teenage daughter's tragic death in an automobile accident
- Dave Douglas Quintet, “Be Still” (2012) (43’) – the jazz trumpeter’s moving tribute to his deceased wife
- AMM, “The Crypt” (1968) (109’)
- Gavin Bryars, “After the Requiem” (1991) (66’): brilliantly conceived and orchestrated, these compositions evoke an imagined twilight of death.
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 . . .”