And lo, the Morbid Anatomy Anthology is now available for one and all to read. Death Ref John brings up the Anthology’s rear with an essay entitled On the Non-Denial Denial of Death.
More to come later this week on the 2014 Congress of Curious Peoples at the Coney Island Museum.
Yours in Death and Culture,
— The Death Reference Desk.
I posted a bit ago about William Brahms’ Last Words of Notable People. I wasn’t the first (and certainly shan’t be the last) to get super-nerdy about it.
Check out author John Green’s lovely, spastic video review. Hee hee!
The DRD was kindly offered a review copy of this book to be released in September 2010. DeathRef librarian Meg Holle took it to task, after a survey of similar works at local academic and public libraries.
A person’s last words — whether written in a diary or directly preceding the death rattle — tend to intrigue we the living, especially if the deceased, while alive, was otherwise fascinating or important. Even prosaic word salads have a special nihilistic charm. Yet throughout history, in addition to poor recordkeeping or merely mishearing or misremembering, we have been tempted to force meaning or change entirely the last words of the dead to preserve their dignity or prolong their profundity.
Many compilations of last words reflect this — that it is more important to be poetic than precise or to admit that we simply do not know the truth, disregarding scholarship and accuracy to perpetrate myths and cults of personality for their inspiration or wit. Such works tend to focus on the creative delivery of only a few people, while others merely list quotes devoid of context. Rarely do they name verifiable sources or show interest in or even admit to ambiguity beyond a brush-off disclaimer buried in the preface.
Last Words of Notable People is an ambitious effort to remedy this. Compiled by librarian and historian William B. Brahms, this reference work contains the final words of over 3,500 noteworthy people. With a focus on politicians, religious leaders, military people, writers, artists, musicians, athletes and criminals, last words are collected throughout history and around the world, with Americans and Europeans best represented. Arranged alphabetically by last name, each entry contains a short biography, the person’s last words, the context in which they were spoken or written and the source of the quote.
Last Words of Notable People especially excels at being unequivocal about ambiguity. It documents not only last words and their variations, but also completely different quotes when applicable. It also includes well-known last-word contrivances, clearly marked as “doubtful” in the text.
The book claims to be “the most authoritative compilation of Last Words ever assembled.” In a nice twist of honest, functional scholarship, its authority does not derive from claiming settled truth, but by acknowledging and sourcing the contradictions. While Brahms has necessarily made interpretive decisions regarding the content — what to include, omit, call “doubtful” and so forth — the reader is presented with evidence and citations for further investigation.
What exactly is scholarly interesting about last words, anyway? Let’s find out. I randomly examined the entry for civil rights activist Malcolm X, who was shot to death while giving a speech. After a brief bio, it states:
Last Words: “Hold it! Hold it! Let’s cool it! Let’s be cool, brothers!” Spoken to the three assassins who shot him multiple times.
Variation: “Let’s cool it brothers.”
For comparison, Alan Bisbort’s Famous Last Words (2001) has Malcolm X saying,
“Brothers and sisters, stay cool!”
…in effort to “maintain order in the assembly hall.”
While similar on the surface, these two versions are quite different. In the first quote and its variation, Malcolm X tries to deescalate the situation while also confronting and chiding his killers. In the second, he’s addressing the crowd. It’s reasonable to think that in the confusion, words were misremembered and to whom they were delivered, misconstrued.
But in this second version of “brothers” and being “cool,” “sisters” is also thrown in. Because that’s what he said? Or because of the politically correct, socially expedient reality that it’d be unfortunate for history to remember Malcolm X as forgetting women? — not just in the audience that he was gunned down in front of that day, but all women in all struggles, as this message apparently is, for all time, for everyone to keep their composure and dignity in the face of extreme adversity.
That is, if this was even actually spoken at all.
Brahms lists sources for both variants of the quote. Bisbort has none (to be fair, Bisbort’s work, with its stylish illustrations, is intended for trivial pursuit, not serious scholarship — yet if it’s incorrect… that’s a problem). It’s uncertain why Brahms did not list “Brothers and sisters, stay cool!” as alternative last words. The alleged quote may not be common enough to warrant inclusion, even with a “doubtful” notice, or perhaps it isn’t verifiable at all.
Suffice it to say, the depth of research that was required for this work is staggering, as is the potential range of inquiry it will assist and inspire, as historians investigate not only what people said, but all the ways in which last words are remembered, misheard and completely made up.
This death librarian is sold.
On the downside, while the dictionary format is intuitive and makes the most sense, the book is difficult to browse beyond aimlessly jumping around unless you have a specific person in mind. Additional points of access would improve usability and usefulness, such as a subject index by occupation, or perhaps a list of all the people with “doubtful” last words.
Finding entries by the content of the quote, as some works have done, would also be helpful, though such a task would be arduous and probably contentious (e.g., does Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee’s final utterance, “Strike the tent!” [“doubtful,” by the way] demonstrate valor or delusion?). The book does have an index, but it appears to consist mostly if not exclusively of personal names, making it largely redundant with the already alphabetical name entries.
Bottom line for Academic and Large Public Libraries: For as comprehensive it is, Last Words of Notable People is undeniably a niche resource. But the historians and biographers and general weirdos who run across it will flip out and fall in love as they discover — confirm, deny and further complicate — the final words of the famous.
A Gruesome Reckoning: Librarian Sifts Mexican Press to Tally Drug-Cartel-Related Killings in Juárez
Ana Campoy, Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2010)
With 2,633 homicides in 2009, murder in Juarez, Mexico, is out of control. Much of the violence is related to drug trafficking, accounting for gang on gang and police killings. But civilians are attacked, too, in displays of intimidation, or are simply caught in the crossfire or randomly targeted, like the pregnant U.S. consulate worker and her husband last March. To get a sense of the violence and corruption, listen to this chilling interview with Charles Bowden, a journalist who has covered Juarez for fifteen years and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.
Due to the complexity of determining when a murder, especially a seemingly random one, is related to the drug cartel — compounded by national outrage and international scrutiny that may encourage Mexican authorities to obfuscate the facts — there are no official counts of drug-related murder. This has led researchers, media organizations, watchdog groups and others to keep their own tallies, but this quickly becomes overwhelming because the killings are happening constantly.
Enter librarian Molly Molloy of New Mexico State University. She runs the Frontera List, a collection of newspaper articles about issues along the U.S.–Mexico border. More importantly, she tracks the Mexican media for reports of drug-trade-related murder, keeps them in a searchable database and provides free daily updates and analysis to researchers, journalists, members of Congress, human-rights observers, and more.
While Molloy’s findings contribute to current U.S. news reports, academic studies and investigative journalism, including Charles Bowden’s book Murder City, she also hopes to develop an archive at her university’s library for future scholars that will be useful for analyzing trends over time. Her work has also been essential in unexpected ways, such as providing evidence of fear and distress for a refugee seeking U.S. asylum.
From the Wall Street Journal article:
Ms. Molloy said her work also could help the refugees. Earlier this year, a lawyer representing a person seeking U.S. residency asked Ms. Molloy for documentation of a body—and a severed head—deposited near the client’s home. Ms. Molloy found an article on the incident by searching her database for “decapitated.”
The client’s visa was approved.
As a librarian, I’m naturally heartened and enthused by the idea of a concerned librarian–researcher mending a crucial information gap. But this situation has other fascinating information facets, namely, the authority to name and classify.
What constitutes death is transparent, and murder, close to it. But less evident is defining what is and is not related to drug trafficking, as well as attaching meaning to what this entails (as a significant market for Mexican drugs, is not the United States complicit?). The power seems to be shifting hands: from the Mexican government and police to journalists on the ground to a diligent librarian in New Mexico observing, dissecting and freeing information.
The January 25 issue of the New Yorker features an amusing article about cryopreservation of bodies, a.k.a. cryogenics or cryonics. The article doesn’t so much shed light on the science of this controversial procedure; but rather, it spotlights Robert C.W. Ettinger, one of the founders of the cryonics movement.
The ninety-one year old Ettinger gives journalist Jill Lepore a tour of his Cryonics Institute, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit. Ettinger is matter-of-fact as he dodders around the facility and explains the processes and pitfalls of cryopreservation. Ettinger’s two wives and his mother are frozen at the Institute as part of the current total of 883 members, not including the 64 pets also in cryostasis. Several pictures are here from the Immorality Institute’s forum page.
In his youth, Ettinger was a reader and writer of science fiction which informed his interest in and ultimately his career choice as a cryonicist. And indeed, he has an interesting take on what the future holds. Regarding the idea that if no one ever dies, won’t there be too many people on the planet? Ettinger posits:
The people could simply agree to share the available space in shifts and could “go into suspended animation from time to time to make room for others.” There will be no childbirth. Fetuses will be incubated in jars. Essentially, motherhood will be abolished. Then too, eugenics will help keep the birthrate down, and deformed babies could be frozen against the day that someone might actually want them.”
If you wish to learn more about Mr. Ettinger’s postulations, visit your local library or retailer and take a gander at some of his books:
The Weird Book Room has a little something for everyone. As part of the larger AbeBooks.com, this little corner of the website offers titles you may or may not find in your local library, neighborhood bookstore or even the thrift store around the corner. Most are downright obscure—and probably out-of-print to boot in many cases. Some, like Twinkie Deconstructed (which I admit to reading), was published just a few years ago and is hardly rare. But here they all are, collected for your amusement and yes, your purchasing enjoyment.
What kind of books can one find in the Weird Book Room? Funny you should ask. Titles such as Why Do I Vomit?, 50 Sad Chairs and Is Your Dog Gay? are just the tip of the iceberg. The death-related titles aren’t quite the gutbusters, but worth a browse with such titles as Dead Pet: Send Your Best Little Buddy Off In Style, An Incomplete History of Funerary Violins, and my personal fave, People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. We have that last title in our collection at Multnomah County Library and I checked it out, but it was so bad I couldn’t even get through the first 5 pages.
Christmas is coming and Hanukkah too. Perhaps a copy of Jewish Chess Masters on Stamps is in order?