The 'Aura of Life' After Death, and Other Famous Takes on Mortality

Twenty impressions of when living stops; from Faulkner, Proust, and other great minds

Yesterday marked the publication of Mortality, Christopher Hitchens' posthumous work about his experiences with the cancer that killed him. We've lost a lot of great minds recently -- Nora Ephron, Maurice Sendak, David Rakoff, and Hitch himself -- and we think this end-of-life memoir in essays, full of Hitchens' trademark wit and his clear-eyed dissection of life as he sees it, may just heal us a little bit, as books tend to do. To celebrate the book's publication, and to help recalibrate our own perspectives on the loss of so many of our intellectual heroes, we've put together this selection of passages on death and mortality from a few of our favorite authors.

sontag.jpg

"Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more." - Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist

"People living deeply have no fear of death." - Anaïs Nin, The Diary Of Anaïs Nin, Volume Two

"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs -- the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free." - Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

"I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind -- and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town." - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

"Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see." - Helen Keller

orwell.jpg

"A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is 'weak,' 'sinful' and anxious for a 'good time.' Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life." - George Orwell, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"

"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography -- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience." - Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

"The meaning of life is that it stops." - Franz Kafka

hitch.jpg

"For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." - Susan Sontag

"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away." - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

"If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry." - Ernest Hemingway

Presented by

Emily Temple is an editor at Flavorpill.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Health

Just In