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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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory, 1958

 Death of a Friend

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, 1965

Death of Richard Eugene Hickock

Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory, 1958

Death of a Friend:

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn’t count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. ("Buddy dear," she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, "yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones…"). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me "the best of the batch." Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper" "See a picture show and write me the story." But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880’s; more and more thirteenth are not the only days she stays in bed: a morning arrives in November, a leafless birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim: "Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!"

And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, 1965

Death of Richard Eugene Hickock:

Dewey had watched them die, for he had been among the twenty-odd witnesses invited to the ceremony. He had never attended an execution, and when on the midnight past he entered the cold warehouse, the scenery had surprised him: he had anticipated a setting of suitable dignity, not this bleakly lighted cavern clustered with lumber and other debris. But the gallows itself, with two pale nooses attached to a crossbeam, was imposing enough; and so, in an unexpected style, was the hangman, who cast a long shadow from his perch on the platform at the top of the wooden instrument’s thirteen steps. The hangman, an anonymous, leathery gentleman who had been imported from Missouri for the event, for which he was paid six hundred dollars, was attired in an aged double-breasted pin-striped suit overly commodious for the narrow figure inside it – the coat came nearly to his knees; and on his head he wore a cowboy hat which, when first bought, had perhaps been a bright green, but was now a weathered, sweat-stained oddity.

Also, Dewey found the self-consciously casual conversation of his fellow witnesses, as the stood awaiting the start of what one witness termed "festivities," disconcerting.

"What I heard was, they was gonna let them draw straws to see who dropped first. Or flip a coin. But Smith says why not do it alphabetically. Guess ‘cause S comes after H. Ha!"

"Read in the paper, afternoon paper, what they ordered for their last meal? Ordered the same menu. Shrimp. French fries. Garlic bread. Ice cream and strawberries and whipped cream. Understand Smith didn’t touch his much."

"That Hickock’s got a sense of humor. They was telling me how, about an hour ago, one of the guards says to him, 'This must be the longest night of your life,' And Hickock, he laughs and says, 'No. The shortest.' "

"Did you hear about Hickock’s eyes? He left them to an eye doctor. Soon as they cut him down, this doctor’s gonna yank out his eyes and stick them in somebody else’s head. Can say I’d want to be that somebody. I’s feel peculiar with them eyes in my head."

"Christ! Is that rain? All the windows down! My new Chevy. Christ!"

The sudden rain rapped the high warehouse rood. The sound not unlike the rat-a-tat-tat of parade drums, heralded Hickock’s arrival. Accompanied by six guards and a prayer-murmuring chaplain, he entered the death place handcuffed and wearing an ugly harness of leather straps that bound his arms to his torso.

At the foot of the gallows the warden read to him the official order of execution, a two-page document; and as the warden read, Hickock’s eyes, enfeebled by half a decade of cell shadows roamed the little audience until, not seeing what he sought, asked the nearest guard, in a whisper, if any member of the Clutter family was present. When he was told no, the prisoner seemed disappointed, as though he thought the protocol surrounding this ritual of vengeance was not being properly observed.

As is customary, the warden, having finished his recitation, asked the condemned man whether he had any last statement to make. Hickock nodded. " I just want to say I hold no hard feelings. You people are sending me to a better world than this ever was"; then as if to emphasize the point , he shook hands with the four men mainly responsible for his capture and conviction, all of whom had requested permission to attend the executions: K.B.I Agents Roy Church, Clarence Duntz, Harold Nye, and Dewey himself. "Nice to see you," Hickock said with his most charming smile; it was as if he were greeting guests at his own funeral.

The hangman coughed – impatiently lifted his cowboy hat and settled it again, a gesture somehow reminiscent of a turkey buzzard huffing, the smoothing its neck feathers – and Hickock, nudged by an attendant, mounted the scaffold steps. "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed is the name of the Lord," and the chaplain intoned, as the rain sound accelerated, as the noose was fitted, and as a delicate black mask was tied around the prisoner’s eyes, "May the Lord have mercy on your soul." The trap door opened, and Hickock hung for all to see a full twenty minutes before the prison doctor at last said, "I pronounce this man dead." A hearse, its blazing headlights beaded with rain, drove into the warehouse, and the body, placed on a litter and shrouded under a blanket, was carried to the hearse and out into the night.

Staring after it, Roy Church shook his head: "I never would have believed he had the guts. To take it like he did. I had him tagged a coward."

The man to whom he spoke, another detective, said, "Aw, Roy. The guy was a punk. A mean bastard, he deserved it."

Church, with thoughtful eyes, continued to shake his head.


Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.