The great Russian playwright and short-story writer, Anton Chekhov, died on July 15, 1904. In one of his short-story masterpieces, “Ward Number 6,” Chekhov describes the death of Andrey Yefimitch Ragin, a doctor and a philosopher, who has ended up in a mental asylum.
“Towards evening Andrey Yefimitch died of an apoplectic stroke. At first he had a violent shivering fit and a feeling of sickness; something revolting seemed to invade his whole body, even his fingers, stretched from his stomach to his head and flooded his eyes and ears…Dr. Ragin understood that his end had come, and remembered that Gromov, Mikhail, and millions of people believed in immortality. And what if it really existed? But he did not want immortality, and he thought of it only for an instant. A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, which he had been reading about the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter…Mikhail said something. Then it all vanished, and Dr. Ragin sank into oblivion for ever.
“The porters came, took him by his arms and legs, and carried him off to the chapel.
“There he lay on the table, with open eyes, and the moon shed its light upon him at night. In the morning Sergei came, prayed piously before the crucifix, and closed his former chief's eyes.
“Next day Dr. Ragin was buried. Mikhail and Dariushka were the only people at the funeral.”
In a story for the New York Times last week, Ted Gup describes receiving mail for his son, David, who died two and a half years ago at the age of 21. Credit-card applications, solicitation letters for insurance and frequent-flier miles, past-due notices from the IRS (for $5.48) – he dutifully saves it all, along with emails addressed to his son, in the forlorn hope that it’s all been a mistake, that some sort of miracle might bring him back. In the meantime, he’s holding onto it all, against the day when he might forward it to him. His responsibility as a father is hard to let go of.
He thinks of this mail, along with his memories and his dreams, as a kind of afterlife for his son – the only kind he believes in. What happens when the mail stops, the memories fade, and David no longer appears in his dreams? Will it be a second death for his son?
Chekhov’s Dr. Rabin dies almost friendless; there is nothing to perpetuate his life. It’s clear what Chekhov—or his narrator—thought about an actual afterlife. (“Dr. Ragin sank into oblivion for ever.”)
“The thing about death,” Gup writes, “is that it is not nearly so final or absolute as those in mourning may wish. The sheer momentum of our being has its own trajectory that animates the dead and taunts—or comforts—the living.”
Read about other deaths, famous and otherwise: