Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Boccaccio, Giovanni, Tales from the Decameron, 1348

Translated by Richard Aldington, 1930

Death of Salvestra & Girolamo


Fourth Day: Neifile’s Story

When Emilia had finished, Neifile began at the king’s command.

Most worthy ladies, in my opinion there are some persons who think they know more than other people, and in fact they know less. They oppose their opinions not only to the advise of other men but even to the nature of things’ and through their presumptuousness great evils have occurred, but never any good. Among all natural things, love least of all will endure contrary advice or action, for its nature is such that it can more quickly endure itself than be removed by foresight. So it occurs to me to tell you the tale of a woman who tried to be wiser than she was or than was befitting her or than the case in which she tried to show her wisdom needed; she attempted to expel love from an enamoured heart (a love set there perhaps by heavenly influence), and succeeded in driving out love and life at one and the same time from her son’s body.


Girolamo is in love with Salvestra. Compelled by his mother’s entreaties, he goes to Paris. When he returns, he finds her married; he secretly enters her house and dies there. His body is taken to a church, and Salvestra dies beside him, and both are buried in the same grave

Death of Salvestra & Girolamo:

…The young man then lay down beside her without touching her. He gathered into one fixed thought his long love for her and his coldness and his lost hopes, and made up his mind to die. Without saying a word, he clenched his fists, held his breath, and died beside her.

          After some time the girl began to wonder at his stillness, and, fearing that her husband might awake, she said:

          “Now, Girolamo, why don’t you go away?”

          Not getting any reply, she thought he must have gone to sleep. So she stretched out her hand to wake him up and began to shake him, but she found him as cold as ice, which really amazed her. She touched him again, and, finding he did not move, realized that he was dead. So there she lay in great distress, not knowing what to do.

          At last she determined to find out what her husband would say ought to be done if this had happened to someone else. So she woke him up, and told him what had just happened to her as if it had happened to somebody else, and then asked him what he would do if it happened to her. The good man replied that he thought the dead body should be secretly carried home and left there, without blame falling on the woman, who in his opinion had committed no sin. Then the young woman said:

          “That is what we must do.”

          She then took his hand, and made him feel the dead man. The husband jumped up in amazement and lighted a light; and without entering into any explanation with his wife he dressed the body in him own clothes and, aided by his innocence, at once lifted it on to his shoulders and carried it to the door of  Girolamo’s house, where he left it.

          Next morning when Girolamo was found lying dead before his own house, there was a great disturbance, and much uproar from the mother. He was carefully examined, and no wound or bruise was found upon him; so the doctors agreed that he had died of grief, as indeed he had.

          The dead body was then carried to a church, and the grieving mother and many other women, both relatives and neighbors, began to weep and lament over him, as was customary with us. And while they were bewailing him, the good man in whose house Girolamo had died, said to Salvestra:

          “Throw a cloak over your head, and go to the church where they have taken Girolamo. Mingle with the women, and find out what they are saying about all this, and I will do the same among the men, so that we can find out if anything is being said about us.”

          The girl had become compassionate too late; and this proposal pleased her, because she wanted to see the dead man to whom she would not give one kiss in his lifetime; and so she went.

          It is a marvelous thing to think how difficult it is to examine into the power of love! The heart, which Girolamo’s good fortune could not move, was touched by his misery. When, hidden under her cloak among the women and girls, she saw his dead face, the old flame flared up and such pity came suddenly upon her that she did not rest until she got close to the body. There she uttered a shrill scream and threw herself on the young man, whose face she did drench with tears, because no sooner had she touched him than grief took away her life as it had taken away the young man’s life.

But, as the women crowded round to comfort her and to tell her to get up (although they did not know who she was), and still she did not get up, they tried to lift her and found her motionless. And when they did lift her up they discovered at one and the same time that she was Salvestra and that she was dead. And all the women who were there were overcome with pity and began to lament more loudly than before. The news ran through the church to the men outside and came to the husband’s ears. He wept a long time without listening to comfort or consolation from anyone, and then related to those about him the story of what had happened the night before between his wife and the young men. Thus, everyone discovered the reasons for the death of the two young people, and grieved for it.

          They then took the dead girl and dressed her as dead bodies are customarily decked out, and laid her on the same bier as Girolamo. After long lamentations they were both buried in the same grave; and thus they whom love could not join together became inseparable companions in death. 



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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