A Good Death

From the Richmond Palladium newspaper, Saturday, January 18, 1862. Courtesy of Morrison-Reeves Library, Richmond, Indiana. Click to enlarge,

Death is never good.  Yet it is the curse of each of us to die.  It is a constant in the experiment of life.  The only variables are the how, the why, and the when.

Each generation has to come to grips with death for itself.  Every society struggles to define what it means to die well.

For the Americans who lived through the Civil War period, death became a force to be reckoned with–a reality that grew to unimaginable size.  As they wrestled with the overwhelming nature of loss and the complexity of its causes, they came up with their own version of the good death.

When Samuel A. Thorn (my great-great grandmother’s cousin) died in January 1862, there was nothing good about his death.  He was a young man, 17 years old, who had just recently signed up to fight in the Civil War.  Before he saw battle, he lost his life to pneumonia at a disease-ridden camp in Kentucky.

As the Civil War began, young men from the farms of the heartland came together into camps to learn how to be soldiers.  Many had never been far from home and had never lived in close quarters with anyone except their brothers and sisters.  When they were put together cheek by jowl in hastily built barracks with dubious sanitation systems, disease ran rampant.

Many of the young men who had gone off to defend the Union–to fight honorably and at the very least die gloriously in battle–perished ingloriously on a sickbed in a cold, wet hospital far from home.  Samuel Thorn’s death was sadly anything but atypical.

Communicating back to families and communities about how a soldier died was always a difficult matter.  But for an officer who watched a young private expire from disease before he even had a chance to show his prowess as a soldier, the task of telling that private’s loved ones of his early demise must have been particularly challenging.

Lieutenant T.H. Kirby sent the report to Samuel’s parents and friends:

DIED–at Camp Wickliffe, Larue County, Kentucky, of Pneumonia, on the 5th inst., SAMUEL A. THORN, member of company B, 36th Regiment Indiana Volunteers, only son of Benjamin Thorn of Washington, Ind.

He fell a victim to death while in the vigor of youth, far from home and parents, in the service of his country, whither patriotism had prompted him to follow the stars and stripes of his native country in this her hour of peril.  His last moments of pain were borne without a murmur.  Through the kind endeavors of officers, his remains were forwarded to his friends, accompanied by Thos. Y. Richey.  We unite in extending our sympathies to the friends of the deceased.

LIEUT. T. H. KIRBY

In behalf of the Company

Faust's book. Click to see more about it on Amazon.com

Drew Gilpin Faust does an excellent job of identifying and explicating the Civil War generation’s version of the good death in her bestselling book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

In the first chapter (particularly pages 11-18), she identifies some of the elements of a good death for the Civil War generation, including that “the deceased had been conscious of his fate [and] had demonstrated a willingness to accept it.”

Lieutenant Kirby’s phrase “borne without a murmur” captures a stoic acceptance of death that was expected of the young men of that generation.  His letter is filled with words that link Samuel’s death to his home and his family (where he should have died, if he had truly experienced a good death).

Samuel is portrayed as a patriotic hero who was on a quest to save his country “in this her hour of peril.”  The nobility of his cause outweighs the ignobility of his death.

According to Faust, “News of a Good Death constituted the ultimate solace.”  Even though Samuel’s parents and friends couldn’t be a part of the deathbed scene as they typically would have, receiving a report that he had played his role well was meant to give some comfort.

Perhaps what was most important was that Samuel was not alone.  He was cared for by the “kind endeavors of officers” and even escorted home by a friend.

Every generation defines its own version of the good death.  Yet so many of the principles remain the same.  We Americans still generally expect our loved ones to take a stoic approach to dying.  We want those who have passed on to be seen as heroes.  And, most of all, we want to know the ones we love didn’t die alone.

— — —

To read more about Camp Wickliffe and the pervasiveness of disease there, see two recent posts on my other blog:  Rain, rain go away! and Death in the Camp.

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10 Responses to A Good Death

  1. mirroredImages says:

    Kevin – a good post 🙂 Actually a very good post, poignant and well written and thought-provoking. As you say, no death is good but it is inevitable. How sad that Samuel Thorn had to die the way he did, but it was lovely and gracious of Kirby to write such words of comfort to the family. Again, really well written — this might be one of my favorite of your posts.

    • Thank you, babe, for your very kind words. To receive such a ringing endorsement of my writing from such a talented writer means a lot to me. And, of course, your words always mean the world to me.

  2. Priya says:

    I’ve not dared to read this twice, even though I want to. This essay reminds me so much of my brother, who died — whether a good or a lesser one is probably moot to those who define these concepts. It was inevitable, yes. And certainly devastating.
    He is supposed to have held on to the hand bar of the tank’s cupola from which he was looking out when the tank toppled. I suspect this might apply to him “He fell a victim to death while in the vigor of youth, far from home and parents, in the service of his country, whither patriotism had prompted him to follow (the stars and stripes) of his native country in this her hour of peril. His last moments of pain were borne without a murmur.” The nobility of his cause outweighs the ignobility of his death. 🙂
    Maybe someday, I’ll come back and read this again. And have my father read it, too. Because it speaks for every soldier in all parts of the world. Thank you, Kevin.

    • Priya, thank you for your heartfelt response. Your words mean so much to me, because of the deep connection you have with the subject of this post. I cannot imagine what it’s like to lose a sibling, and particularly to lose one in his youth.

  3. bronxboy55 says:

    I don’t know that you intended this effect, but your post reinforces a growing feeling in me that we have glorified war to an extent that is beyond all reason. All I could think about as I read this post was that regardless of the quality of his death, Samuel was deprived of a good life.

    Nevertheless, it’s beautifully written, Kevin. At the risk of repeating myself, I wonder if you’re thinking about publishing these in a collection.

    • There is no question that war is over-glorified. I think war should be avoided at all costs and the idea of war never, ever glorified. At the same time, when wars do break out, the bravery and valor shown by individuals–soldier and civilian–should be celebrated. To me it is perfectly legitimate to honor individuals in terrible circumstances, even if we can’t celebrate the circumstances themselves or how they got there.

      My family and I saw the movie Warhorse recently. This movie displays the horrors of war and the havoc it wreaks in individuals’ lives well. But it also (to me, anyway) celebrates the character of individuals who step up and do their best in a horrible environment.

      Often a person’s depth of character is most clearly revealed in the most terrible of situations.

      As to the collecting and publishing of these stories, don’t hold your breath. As you well know, I have a very talented wife who also blogs whose writing is exponentially more powerful than mine, and despite my best efforts I can’t get her to publish. It would be a travesty of the worst kind for me to publish before her. But thanks for the thought.

  4. This is a very well-written and powerful post. Great job.

    I’d never thought, before, of the idea of a “good death.” But the way you’ve illuminated the concept has gained it a place in my mind I’ll be visiting often.

    Priya is right — this post speaks to every solider in all parts of our world. And Charles has a question I’ll hope you’ll answer with a “yes,” about publishing pieces like these in a collection. You have a strong, authoritative yet conversational voice, and you write very well. You really know your history, and I enjoy how you weave your own personal history into that we share as a country.

    • Thanks for your kind affirmation. I have a lot of respect for your writing abilities, so it means a lot that you would praise mine.

      The concept of a “good death” is one I’ve considered before, but never by that name and never with such clarity. The Victorians considered dying an art, but like many things that used to be an art, we’ve managed to turn it into a institutional activity for the most part these days. Nevertheless, the human spirit is irrepressible, and often the personal, creative, artistic qualities of dying shine through in the most institutional of circumstances.

      As for the publishing of a collection, see my previous answer to Charles. But thanks again for the thought and the generous, specific affirmation.

      • Hi again,

        Three notes/questions for you:

        1. Where is your wife’s blog? I’d love to read it. (As in, what’s the URL?)

        2. I’m familiar with the Victorians’ fear of and elaborations on death — you are so right. There was a book I read once (was it The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton?), which illuminated the depths people of that time and place would go to to prevent being buried alive. Escape hatches in the coffins, bells, etc. I’ll need to check on the title; you may enjoy it.

        3. I’m intrigued by the “personal, creative, artistic qualities of dying shine through in the most institutional of circumstances.” But try as I might, I can’t picture what you mean. My grandmother died in a hospital, after a debilitating stroke, and myriad other health issues, after living a heart-breaking yet vigorous life. Her death was anything but personal and creative. It was cold, harsh — someone at the rehabilitation center actually stole her wedding ring. My grandfather passed away before I was even born — and she wore the ring the rest of her life. It wasn’t even much of a ring. But it was hers. How I “knew” my grandfather was through her pure and unending devotion to him.

        Now, that’s a story unlike whatever you’re referring to — so I’m curious. Can you give an example? Of a shining-through moment?

        • 1. My wife’s blog is called Mirrored Images. She is an excellent writer. You should definitely check it out.

          2. I’m always up for book recommendations. Books are my obsession, my drug.

          3. Your story about your grandmother’s death is very sad. Too many deaths are cold, harsh and impersonal these days. Try as they might, professionals can only do so much. But I stand by my assertion that often the personal, the creative, and the artistic qualities of life shine through. I have been at deathbeds where the person is surrounded by cards, flowers, pictures of family members, and pictures or even works of art created by grandchildren or great-grandchildren. I have heard family members, huddled around a dying matriarch, telling stories about their favorite moments of their lives with mom–laughing, crying, celebrating a lifetime of memories. I have been in the room with ten people singing a woman’s favorite hymns as the woman breathed her last breath (her name was Ruth). No death is good. But many have moments of beauty that shine through the pain and the darkness.

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