Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Left: Wallace ‘Wally’ Cleaver – Anthony ‘Tony’ Dow; Top right: Mark Twain – Samuel Clements; Bottom right: Lazarus

Dead and then dead again

News about someone’s death, unbelievably, can be pretty mysterious. ‘Breaking’ news indicated that Tony died in Los Angeles, and the story was pulled until Tony actually and truly passed away (RIP). Lazarus, we know from the Bible (John 11) that Lazarus died (as dead as the proverbial knell to human reason) but was raised ‘from the dead’ at the call of his good friend, Jesus. Later, in John 12: 9-11, we find a lot to kill Lazarus. Poor guy, a second death? We also know the famous and convoluted story of Mark Twain. If not, here is a report from about Twain’s response to a rumor that he was dead or extraordinarily ill and near death.

“When you’re one of the most quoted authors of all time, you’re also bound to become one of the most misquoted authors of all time. Such is the case with Mark Twain, whose famous quip about his own death is frequently butchered by well-meaning admirers, as This Day in Quotes explains.

You’ve probably heard that Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” or another common version containing the phrase “grossly exaggerated.” The gist of the quote is accurate, but neither wording is quite right.

Twain is one of the few people in history who was lucky (or unlucky) enough to comment on newspaper reports of his own death. In 1897, an English journalist from the New York Journal contacted Twain to inquire whether the rumors that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true. Twain wrote a response, part of which made it into the article that ran in the Journal on June 2, 1897:

Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London … The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said: ‘I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead.  James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.’

Apparently, many of the misquoted versions stem from a Mark Twain biography by Albert Bigelow Paine published in 1912, two years after Twain’s death.  According to Paine’s embellished version, Twain had told the reporter, “Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”

That’s not the only Twain quote that’s been a little embellished over the years. Many other witty maxims often attributed to the author have even more dubious origins. You may also remember the quote, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Or perhaps this one: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” While they’re often attributed to Twain, he never said either of them.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of good—and accurate—Twain quotes to go around.”

All three of these deaths (and I believe all of my references are now physically deceased) have something to do with communication, poor communication at that. Here, communication refers to the two-way street of sending and receiving. Mary and Martha, the siblings to Lazarus, had sent word that their brother was very ill and that Jesus should come immediately to save him from dying. What did Jesus hear? The press reported Mark Twain’s cousin was ill in England. How was the press report heard? A premature press release announced Dow’s death. What did we read?

Celebrities are not the only cases of presumed deaths. Having worked in a parish setting for over thirty years, I can assure you that I heard many times that someone in the parish had died, and upon inquiry, it was not valid. On a few occasions, I have heard from family members who want to plan a funeral, and in the conversation, I find out that the relative has not yet really died but will soon. Soon is a relative term when speaking of death, and there is a difference between pre-planning and planning. These experiences led to my policy that someone was not dead until I heard from the family or a mortician.

Incidentally, while watching an old rerun of the ER television series, there was an episode in which a body was declared dead, and another physician disagreed and ‘revived’ the patient. In another episode, an ER physician (first-year resident) worked on a patient’s body until someone told him the patient was dead on arrival.

Death is a reality, but it remains an illusion until proven otherwise, even in our modern world. I’ll close with a line, one of my favorites, from chapter one of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: “Marley was dead, to begin with – there’s no doubt about that. He was as dead as a doornail.”


Published by Thomas

Retired from active priestly ministry in the Catholic Church; former Benedictine monk; francophile; Holocaust researcher; Delta One Million Miler; Ex-Patriated American to the Republic of Panama

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