The Best of Death

Student writers sometimes ask, Should I write the piece I’m working on now or this other one that I’m thinking about? The essential answer is, If you could write only one more piece in your life, what would it be? Or as Thomas Hardy put it, Write as if your time were short, for it is short at best. But we like to balance Hardy’s thought with James Salter’s: Never be rushed.

So it is. There’s time for vision, time for revision, for our breaths and heartbeats till there are no more. By his desk, Mark Twain kept a skull—a memento mori, a reminder. What follows here are great words on death, to live by.

Art is life rescued from time.
—James Salter, his epitaph

The journey is the thing.
—Homer

As they approached the cantina one of the men from inside appeared in the doorway like a bloody apparition. He had been scalped and the blood was all run down into his eyes and he was holding shut a huge hole in his chest where pink froth breathed in and out. One of the citizens laid a hand on his shoulder.

A dónde vas? he said.

A casa, said the man.

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian


How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world!
—Giovanni Boccaccio, on the black death

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.
—Traditional

The Master-Maker in His making made Old Death. . . . Made the body of Death out of infinite hunger. Made a weapon for his hand to satisfy his needs. This was the morning of the day in the beginning of things.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road

Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. . . . And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
—John 11: 41–44

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Pack up all my care and woe
Here I go, singing low
Bye-bye, blackbird
—lyrics by Mort Dixon

Death particularly is never wasted. What the lion leaves, the hyena feasts upon and what scraps remain are morsels for the jackal, the vulture, or even the consuming sun.
—Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Life is change.
How it differs from the rocks.
—Paul Kantner, “Crown of Creation,” vocal by Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane

The president’s physician entered the deserted room alone. He inspected it carefully and found nothing until he reached the stainless-steel trash can. In tidying up David Sanders had crammed the container to the brim with the debris of emergency surgery—intravenous material, gauze, sponges, plastic vials, empty cartons bearing the labels of pharmaceutical houses. The doctor was pressed for time. He didn’t have time to sift through the rubbish, but strewn through it, he saw, were bright red petals of what had been Jacqueline Kennedy’s bouquet of welcome from the city of Dallas. Two dying blossoms were within reach. The orderly had left one lying on the floor beside the can pedal; the other stuck out from the lid. Burkley picked up the first rose, broke the stem off of the other, and carefully slipped both into an envelope.
—William Manchester, The Death of a President

The greatest thing in life is to die young—but delay it as long as possible.
—George Bernard Shaw

We could all die any day
I don’t wanna die,
I’d rather dance my life away.
—Prince, “1999”

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