Writing About Death

Sometimes it isn’t about the dead person; it’s about the witnesses. In this case, an execution — a hanging. Fiction writers could learn a thing or two from reading accounts of real deaths, but I suspect that most of them use movies as a kind of template. Concentrate on the grimaces, the blood, the last words. All very dramatic. And the witnesses? Shocked, stunned, horrified, grieving. Murderers are more likely to be happy or satisfied.

“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”

This is the report of a witness, but it could just as well be a fragment of a novel. The impact of the hanging defies clichés. So does the later description of how the witnesses react. That part could seem shocking or false to someone who’s never actually been involved in deadly violence against another human being. But it’s psychologically true.

“An enormous relief had come upon us now that the job was done. One felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone began chattering gaily.”

The author, a journalist and master of the English language, is better known for a short novel, 1984, but most of his writing is reportorial.

A Hanging by George Orwell

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Writing About Death

  1. What a relief to hear it was George Orwell. It’s a stunningly good description, and when I read that it was simply by a witness, I thought, Where is this amazing writer now? What are they doing? Why haven’t I heard of them? So there you go. All my questions answered, and the whole thing is very interesting into the bargain. Thanks, Catana, for that.

    1. I was blown away by the article, and didn’t want to give away the author too soon. It’s one of those that stays with you because it’s not only so powerful, it’s a very different perspective.

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