My favorite death scene in literature is that of Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. I am also fond of its parallel in the film “Apocalypse Now”, which is evocative in its own right. Though not exactly a death scene, I greatly appreciate the death-discovery of Nastasya Filipovna in Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”. That fine novel also includes my favorite fake-out death scene of Ippolit’s failed suicide.
The winner for best-death-scene-in-a-short-story goes to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”. This is one of my favorite short stories in general, with its fascinating combination of horror and mystical experience. It speaks to the insight (or lack thereof) derived from suffering. I have not seen any film adaptations of this story. If my readers have, I hope they will let me know.
I also enjoy the seemingly random, senseless deaths of Vonnegut. They are not exactly death scenes, as many of them occupy only a sentence or two. They speak to the absurdity of life and death, but at the same time reflect a deeper humanity. Each death is marked by a “so it goes” that strikes me as not quite as dismissive as it first appears.
What makes a literary death scene great? I am sure that much has been written on this topic. I simply offer my personal opinion. I look for a death that is appropriate to the character, a fitting culmination of that person’s arc. It must be dramatic and memorable. It must express something in the human condition beyond that individual, something that all of us can understand, whether it repels or attracts us.
I often have occasion to contrast these literary achievements with “real life” death scenes. Most of us probably wish for as little drama as possible in our own deaths. A peaceful, dignified passing. An expected death is preferable in a way, as it allows us to prepare, reconcile with others, plan for those who will survive us, and say goodbye to loved ones. We may not be especially concerned with the human condition in general, but we do wonder what our own lives mean and what the next stage in our journey might be.
As a doctor, I have witnessed quite a variety of “real life” death scenes. Young people, previously healthy, with sudden, shockingly unexpected deaths. Older people, well prepared and ready. The drama of heroic efforts to resuscitate cardiac arrests. The peacefulness of hospice deaths. The despair, rage and turmoil of grieving loved ones. Reconciled loved ones, singing hymns and comforting each other. It is never as neat and tidy as it seems in books.
Many of us will have no say in how our personal death scenes are written. There is plenty of unpredictable risk out there. But there are some things that we can do. Avoid life-shortening behaviors. Make advance directives, so that our end-of-life wishes will be known. Reconcile with loved ones now, before it’s too late. Reflect on mortality, faith, and the meaning of our lives.