Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was a renowned French organist and composer. On the evening of June 2, 1937, Vierne had just finished giving his 1750th recital at Notre-Dame de Paris, a recital which all attending agreed was as well played as ever. At the end of the concert he was to play two improvisations on submitted themes when he suddenly pitched forward and fell off the bench as his foot hit the low “E” pedal of the organ. He lost consciousness as the single note echoed throughout the church. On that note, he fulfilled his lifelong desire to die at the console of the great organ of Notre Dame. The story of Vierne’s demise was related to us, with some embroidery, at an organ concert recently. The organist had just finished playing one of Vierne’s compositions and was about to continue his recital when he turned to the audience with an impish grin and related a version of the story above, including a re-enactment; a re-enactment which diverged from the truth when, instead of falling off the bench, he slumped onto the keyboard as a discordant chord filled the church.
This little aside, which I suspect may have echoed the current organist’s sentiments, started me thinking about the various ways, pleasant and unpleasant, that we depart this life. I was reminded of the first time I ever considered this subject. As an undergraduate, I enrolled in a course on Goethe’s Faust which was taught by an excellent German teacher, H.L Meesen, who had emigrated to the U.S. just after the war. A German primer “Lebendiges Deutschland”, which he co-authored in 1959, is still widely remembered and available from several sources on the web. He was in his element when he taught Faust because he believed, like Goethe’s Faust, that when one reached the pinnacle of his or her life, that was the time to die. During the course of his lectures he commented on the fact that Kennedy was so young to be president and asked the rhetorical question as to what Kennedy would do with the rest of his life after he left the presidency. The problem for Meesen was that after reaching the pinnacle of success in America, the presidency, just what else is there aspire to. His model, Faust, it was apparent, had the right idea. Making a deal with the devil, he would not die and allow the devil to claim his soul until he could finally say that he was satisfied. One evening, as Faust stood reflecting on his life and surveying all that he had done he said “jetzt, bin Ich zufrieden,” now I am satisfied, at which point the devil closed the deal and Faust dropped dead. I will leave it up to you to read Faust if you want to see how it all turned out. It was Meesen’s ideal that when, having reached the acme of life, you died. Coincidentally, you can see where this is leading, there was a reception for Meesen in the Chancellor’s Office one fall afternoon. He was being recognized by the German government with its highest civilian award for his efforts, to include Lebendiges Deutschland, to rehabilitate the German image after the war. Following the ceremony, he walked back to the building where he had his office, pushed the elevator button and dropped dead. Those of us who were his students had a “well I’ll be” moment, smiled briefly and thought it most appropriate.
Most of us have not gone so far as to consider how or when we would like to die. If pressed, most people would like to die quietly in bed, in their sleep if at all possible. I consider that a bit of a cheat, dying in one’s sleep. I think I would like to see it corning, peacefully, of course. The evening before my aunt died, she went through a box of photographs and old letters while sitting at the kitchen table. She had such a good time as she laughed and cried at the same time, reliving old memories and resurrecting the ghosts of those long gone. When she was finished, she packed everything away quite carefully, went up to bed and died. She must have seen the shadow waiting for her and picked the best possible way to spend her last few hours.
I have heard some men boast that they would like to “die in the saddle,” this being said with a knowing leer. Very selfish of them, I would think, and not very considerate of their partners. I suppose it does happen, yet the obituaries mercifully spare us such details, foregoing the obituary leader “Herbert Smith goes out with a bang,” and instead telling us that the Herbert died of “natural causes.”
Before the advent of excessive realism in the movies, dying people most often were shown lying comfortably in bed, and well made up I might add, surrounded by a loving coterie of family and friends. Amid the tears, the individual tastefully and chastely passes away, sometimes after a soliloquy of 5 minutes or more, causing one to wonder if the person might not have survived had they not talked so much. Heroines in operas somehow manage to belt out a final aria before slipping away. But since most opera heroines die under questionable circumstances (it is the rare heroine who survives the opera), it does not appear to be an end that most of us would want to emulate. Given the choice, most of us would opt for the friends, loving family and soliloquy.
These days, Hollywood is quite graphic in depicting death and on an average night one can see myriad depictions of violent death. People are hacked, slashed, strangled, shot, stabbed, drowned, dissolved, buried alive, hung (let’s see, have I left anything out, well, you can fill in where I left off) in stop-motion, slow motion, color, and black and white. They are defenestrated, run down, pushed in front of moving vehicles and encased in cement in scenes which many of us watch while munching contentedly on a slice of pizza. In one regard, I am convinced that Freddy Krueger was invented to scare teenagers into taking a chastity pledge. His arrival at the end of innocent teenagers doing the deed and their swift and violent end can be no coincidence.
My choice? Quite frankly, I really haven’t given it much thought; non-violently, of course. I only know that I do not intend to go quietly into that good night.