Famous last moments

Charles 5 Comments

Death mask of Ulysses S Grant

Here is a minuscule excerpt from a wonderful, sonorous account of the death of ex-President Ulysses S Grant. It’s not what we get any more, is it, the last deathbed moments of celebs and justifiably famous people? How, when we think of it, we wish we did. Public figures die so much more privately in an age when information has never been more freely available.

On a personal note, if I am ever engaged as a celebrant I always try to elicit an account of the last days and hours. People appreciate the opportunity to talk about it – it’s cathartic. And it establishes an intimacy which makes it much easier to gather information. When a grieving person has talked about the death they can talk about anything. Top tip.

All eyes were intent on the General. His breathing had become soft, though quick. A shade of pallor crept slowly but perceptibly over his features. His bared throat quivered with the quickened breath. The outer air, gently moving, swayed the curtains at an east window. Into the crevice crept a white ray from the sun. It reached across the room like a rod and lighted a picture of Lincoln over the deathbed. The sun did not touch the companion picture, which was of the General. A group of watchers in a shaded room, with only this quivering shaft of pure light, the gaze of all turned on the pillowed occupant of the bed, all knowing that the end had come, and thankful, knowing it, that no sign of pain attended it — this was the simple setting of the scene.

The General made no motion. Only the fluttering throat, white as his sick robe, showed that life remained. The face was one of peace. There was no trace of present suffering. The moments passed in silence. Mrs. Grant still held the General’s hand. The Colonel still stroked his brow.

The light on the portrait of Lincoln was slowly sinking. Presently the General opened his eyes and glanced about him, looking into the faces of all. The glance lingered as it met the tender gaze of his companion. A startled, wavering motion at the throat, a few quiet gasps, a sigh, and the appearance of dropping into a gentle sleep followed. The eyes of affection were still upon him. He lay without a motion. At that instant the window curtain swayed back in place, shutting out the sunbeam.

“At last,” said Dr. Shrady, in a whisper.

“It is all over,” sighed Dr. Douglas.

Much much more here. A darn good 20 mins reading.


  1. Charles

    It is indeed a top tip Charles; I find quite often that families take little or no prompting to talk it through, and how someone died should surely help us to gauge how to talk about them, how to set and develop a suitable tone.

    After all, “Christopher Marlowe was stabb’d, and dyed swearing.” So note to self when meeting the Marlowes: possibly “death is nothing at all, I’ve only popped next door” is not quite the thing for young Kit. And then the family tell you he once said “he who loves not boys and tobacco is a fool” and the picture begins to unfold for you. Christina Rosetti won’t do it either…

    Going through the last hours is very illuminating of how the family actually feel about the dead person, and therefore helpful in getting the funeral “right.” And it often seems to help the bereaved people.

    The natural order, after prelimiaries, seems to roll “last days/hours; how the ceremony should go and who does what; story of the life.” Sometimes they seem to do better wirth ceremony first, then having faced that, they can talk about the last hours. In either case, doing so seems to help.

    And then they are ready to talk about the dead person, and that really seems to help. Because they haven’t done that for quite a while, have they? Just sit and tell someone what s/he was like and what they did.

  2. Charles

    What marvellous Marlowe quotes!

    Yes,I am sure it is good to have people to tell the death to — because it’s not what most people want to hear (for all that they want to know). In our society the bereaved can feel like a social embarrassment, and that’s a pity.

  3. Charles

    I’ll go with your top tip, Charles – only last night, the simple question “how did he die?” elicited a 15 minute monologue of the most traumatic time in this complete stranger’s life, probably the first and last time she’ll ever have the chance to recount it; and from then on it was plain sailing.

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