Describing—let alone defining—the act of death is a fool’s errand. After all, how does one speak of eternity, whether spent in unremembered inky nothingness or fluttering around on angelic wings?

Still, some of us come closer than others in peaking behind the epistemological, spiritual and otherwise cosmological curtain separating the living from the dead. I’ve always liked the term “the sweet hereafter,” even if it’s hard to beat German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called death “the supreme festival on the road to freedom.” Though a little on the cheery side, it’s important to note that Bonhoeffer did not suffer fools (or evil) gladly, and for his candor on matters ecclesiastical and political was executed by the Nazis at the Flossenburg concentration camp, weeks before its liberation by Allied troops.

Of course, death, because it’s wholly unknowable, is best described circumspectly, metaphorically, and (as with Bonhoeffer) with a touch of heartbreaking exquisitiveness. That said, sometimes what’s needed is a little cold water on all this pastry-rich lyricism. Take, for instance, Edgar Allan Poe, who announced death thusly: “The fever called ‘Living’ is conquered at last.”

As with many unsolvable puzzles of language (the puzzle being the impossibility of shoehorning the infinite into a form of expression bounded by the finite), nineteenth-century newspaper writers tackled both the explicable and inexplicable with a kind of earthy poetry. Below you will find a sampling of obituary headlines from several newspapers published in a small Midwestern city more than a century past. The date under each headline indicates the year of the obit.

Takes her departure to unknown regions

1875

Shuffled off the mortal coil

1875

A welcome messenger

1883

Asleep in death

1885

Suddenly summoned to his long home

1893

Whirr of death’s sickle keen

1893

An end to misery

1895

Update 1:

He sleeps

1881

Life’s volume closed

1881

Visit of the grim destroyer

1886

Grandma means dead

1894

Into the beyond

1895

Into the tomb
1890

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