David Bruce: Death Anecdotes

Early in the implementation of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the Nazis told the Jews that they were going to work camps which were not luxurious, but comfortable, and where there would be enough food. New arrivals to the concentration camps were met by a band playing lively music, and a Nazi officer would casually divide them into two groups. One group, made up of the strongest, would be sent to work. The much larger group, consisting of the weak, the aged, and the young, was sent to the bathhouses to be killed by the poison gas that poured out of shower heads instead of the water the new arrivals were expecting. Even the bathhouses were disguised. They were pleasant-looking buildings surrounded by gardens.

In 1952, Mother Teresa attempted to take care of a dying woman who had been discovered lying neglected, with part of her body eaten by rats and ants. Hospitals refused to take care of the dying woman, so Mother Teresa decided that her Missionaries of Charity would open a home for the dying. Soon after, they began to use a mostly abandoned Hindu temple for this purpose. About the people she helped there, Mother Teresa said, “They lived like animals. At least they die like human beings.”

Did you know that Jimmy Olson, Superman’s friend, played a role in the history of American opera? Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olson in the 1950s TV series, wrote the libretto for the final opera by Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). Lord Byron (1972) is about the effort — which failed — to obtain a grave in Westminister Abbey for Lord Byron. Opera critic Barrymore Laurence Scherer writes that this opera deserves to be presented more often than it is.

Groucho Marx once was dragged to see a medium by his wife. He was reluctant to go, because he didn’t believe the medium could communicate with the dead, but he perked up when he heard that the medium would answer any question asked of her, even if it wasn’t about dead people. Groucho’s question was, “What’s the capital of North Dakota?” The medium didn’t know the answer, and two of her beefy male confederates threw Groucho out of the seance.

Female jockey Mary Bacon once suffered a serious concussion that left her unconscious and fighting for her life. Her mother sat with her, and a pleasant-looking man stopped by each morning. Eventually, her mother asked who the pleasant-looking man was. The hospital floor supervisor answered, “He’s the undertaker.” (Eventually, Ms. Bacon recovered and raced again.)

Sherry Britton was a Jewish stripteaser. During World War II, an American soldier sent her a photograph of herself which he had taken from a dead Nazi soldier. Ms. Britton says, “If the German had known he was carrying around a picture of a Jewish girl, he wouldn’t have had to be killed. He would have committed suicide.”

As figure skater Robert McCall lay dying of AIDS, he heard on the radio that he had died and he listened as the announcer read his obituary. He called the radio station and announced, “This is Robert McCall,” then he had the pleasure of using Mark Twain’s immortal line: “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

“Shoeless Joe” Jackson was kicked out of professional baseball after being suspected of helping the Chicago Black Sox throw the 1919 World Series — despite batting .375 in the series. When he died, his last words were, “I’m going to meet the Greatest Umpire of all, now. I know that he will judge me innocent.”

When humorist George Ade died, Robert Benchley got out of bed and went out and had a good time, telling stories about Mr. Ade and drinking. According to Mr. Benchley, “When a great humorist dies, everybody should go to a place where there is laughter, and drink to his memory until the lights go out.”

A long-time Democrat was dying, and his family wanted to call in a clergyman. The Democrat declined to talk to the clergyman, saying, “I can’t see … what occasion … I have … for the services … of a clergyman. … I never … voted … the Republican ticket … in my life.”

Dusty Boggess was an outstanding major league umpire who had a baseball that was signed by all the umpires he had worked with in his career. When he died, the baseball was placed in his coffin and buried with him, just as he had specified in his will.

Vietnam War protesters understood how to make a point. Some protesters once threw confetti on Pat Nixon, the wife of President Richard Nixon. The confetti was printed with the message, “If this was napalm, you would be dead.”

“When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.” — Emily Dickinson.

When Napoleon died, a courtier informed King George IV by saying, “Sire, your greatest enemy is dead.” The courtier should have stated his meaning more clearly, for King George IV replied, “By God, is she?”

Henny Youngman’s most famous one-liner was, “Take my wife — please!” At his funeral, Rabbi Noach Valley of the Actor’s Temple in New York prayed, “Dear God, take Henny Youngman — please.”

The priest asked a man on his deathbed, “Will you accept Jesus as your savior and renounce the devil?” The man weakly replied, “Reverend, I’m in no position to offend anyone.”

In his absence, the IRA once sentenced Irish playwright Brendan Behan to death. Mr. Behan sent the IRA “a polite note, saying that they could shoot me in my absence, also.”

Noël Coward once told reporter Robert Robinson, “One day I will retire from public life.” When asked when that day would be, Mr. Coward replied, “You may follow my coffin.”

When Rumi died, with his last words he asked that he be buried in the topmost part of his tomb, as he wanted to be the first to rise on resurrection day.

When Rabbi Israel Salanter died on Feb. 2, 1883, he left little behind to his descendants: a pair of Tephillin and a worn-out Talith.

When Demonax the Cynic philosopher was asked about death, he replied, “Wait a little, and I’ll send you a report.”

An outdoor sign at a San Diego church once asked, “Will it take six strong pallbearers to bring you back?”

“I expected this but not just yet.” — gravestone inscription.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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