There exist many things considerably worse than death, and the S.S. saw to it that none of them was ever very far from their victims’ minds and imagination.
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Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
When grief is raw the presence of the deceased is overwhelming. In households that lost children in the tsunami it became routine, after half an hour of tea and chat, to be asked if I would like to ‘meet’ the dead sons and daughters.
Richard Lloyd Parry, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, London Review of Books
Continued incapacitating grief is the commonest variation of the usual pattern of mourning. There is evidence that the people who at first do not demonstrate their grief may later show this troubled, chronic state. To recognize a state of grief as being unduly prolonged, however, infers that there is a generally accepted length of mourning. In fact the duration of sorrow varies enormously.
John Hinton, Dying (1967)
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I am so happy, so happy.
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Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going –
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.
The story goes: One February morning in 1360 the Zen monk Kozan Ichikyo, aged 77, wrote his jisei (‘death poem’), put down his brush, and died where he sat.
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Behind the clouds, in the south, a clear patch was growing larger, and pretty soon emptiness would have the sky. That was the way, a dream of days followed by emptiness, the huge water turning over the grains of sand, neither one knowing which was big and which was small. Mr. Cheung was uneasy and sad. He would have to die, and the quiet knife of this fact wasn’t dissuaded by the interplay of milkiness and inkiness in the textures of the Atlantic under these clouds of October, or by his prayers, best wishes, or sorrow. His mood swelled and the action of the wind over the beach seemed full of power.
Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro
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I remember when I was a girl and a young man fell in love with me, and he came and sang in the rain under an apple-tree outside my windows, and he caught tuberculosis and died.
—Nora Barnacle, quoted in Brenda Maddox’s biography Nora.
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They Caught the Ferry (1948). Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and described by Senses of Cinema as “the most extraordinary Road Safety film ever made”.
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Maybe one of the hardest things is to see beyond your own society, to step out of the collective consciousness of your time, but it teaches you about things as nothing else does. You begin to see your own age not with understanding, perhaps, but with compassion. You see the weakness and smallness of things which are now great or powerful. Sights which might at other times have filled me with contempt now moved me to pity, such as the overdressed women with their jewels and their expensive clothes in the Caffè Greco, the pity you might feel for bones found in an ancient tomb, a priceless ring on each fingerbone. I pity them their deaths in a way that they do not pity themselves, and I pity them for their faith in frail mortal things, for not knowing that there will be nothing left but weeds and broken stones.
Deirdre Madden, Remembering Light and Stone (Faber and Faber, 1992)
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