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The Story of Death

In its “List of Deaths for the Year 1750,” the Gentleman’s Magazine included one

Mrs Reed of Kentish Town, aged 81. She had kept a mahogany coffin and shroud by her 6 years, when thinking she should not soon have occasion for them she sold them, and dy’d suddenly the same evening. (188)

There’s an elaborate art of dying premised here. We can start with the articles of burial, at the ready, signaling Mrs. Reed’s vigilant preparation. Coffin and shroud are inmates, given the privilege of domestic intimacy, and death too will arrive like an intimate relation returning home. By disposing of the accoutrements of burial, Mrs. Reed presumed she would live. The unstated conclusion: her lapse in preparation invited the very thing she had ceased to fear. And it caught her, cruelly, without the benefit of last rites. (As Philippe Ariés explains, it is only recently that we have come to desire a quick death.) Death may be unknowable, but it seems to have an eye for formal irony and narrative resolution. Where we nod, it comes winking.

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