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
Shuffled off the mortal coil
A welcome messenger
Asleep in death
Suddenly summoned to his long home
Whirr of death’s sickle keen
An end to misery
Life’s volume closed
Visit of the grim destroyer
Grandma means dead
Into the beyond