Mark Twain
By A.F. Bradley, New York | Steamboattimes.com | Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

I thought it would be interesting to see what America’s quintessential humorist had to say about the end-of-life and life-after-death. Fortunately, Twain was an avid collector of scraps, newspaper clips, photos, and his own musings. Here are some notes he wrote about death and the afterworld during the period of declining health, just before his death.

As he approached the end of his life, Clemens grew more lonely and melancholic. He took on a biographer, a personal assistant, and a dozen or so surrogate grandchildren. He traveled to Bermuda for health and relaxation. He played billiards with friends. He also built a house in Redding, CT and called it Stormfield, after one of his characters who makes a trip to heaven.

Clemens approached death stoically, but, in a sense, it had always been a familiar friend, providing him a rich field for humor and a hope for release from what had often been a difficult life.

When he died on April 21, 1910, newspapers around the country declared, “The whole world is mourning.” By then, Sam Clemens had long since ceased to be a private citizen. He had become Mark Twain, a proud possession of the American nation.

“When I found myself perched on a cloud, with a million other people, I never felt so good in my life. Says I, ‘Now, this is according to the promises; I’ve been having my doubts, but now I am in heaven, sure enough.” I gave my palm branch a wave or two, for luck, and then I tautened up my harp-strings and struck in. Well, Peters, you can’t imagine anything like the row we made. It was grand to listen to, and made a body thrill all over, but there were considerable many tunes going on at once, and that was a drawback to the harmony, you understand, and then there was a lot of Injun tribes, and they kept up such another war-whooping that they kind of took the tuck out of the music. By and by, I quit performing, and judged I’d take a rest. There was quite a nice mild old gentleman sitting next to me, and I noticed he didn’t take a hand; I encouraged him, but he said he was naturally bashful and was afraid to try before so many people… Hom and I had a considerable long silence, then, but, of course, it warn’t noticeable in that place… Finally, says he—

‘Don’t you know any tune but the one you’ve been pegging at all day?’

‘Don’t you reckon you could learn another one?’ says he.

‘Never,’ says I; ‘I’ve tried to, but I couldn’t manage it.’

‘It’s a long time to hang to the one—eternity, you know.’

‘Don’t break my heart,’ says I; ‘I’m getting low-spirited enough already.’

After another long silence, says he—

‘Are you glad to be here?’

Says I, ‘Old man, I’ll be frank with you. This AIN’T just as near my idea of bliss as I thought it was going to be, when I used to go to church.’

Says he, ‘What do you say to knocking off and calling it half a day?’

‘That’s me,’ says I. ‘I never wanted to get off watch so bad in my life.'”

—Mark Twain, “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” 1909

“Now, I have known so many burglars—not exactly known, but so many of them have come near me in my various dwelling-places, that I am disposed to allow them credit for whatever good qualities they possess. Chief among these, and, indeed, the only one I just now think of, is their great care while doing their business to avoid disturbing people’s sleep. Noiseless as they may be, however, the effect of their visitation is to murder sleep later on.”

—Mark Twain, “Of books and burglars” speech, 1908

From one of Twain’s last letters, when he was trying to get home from Bermuda:

“I don’t want to die here for this is an unkind place for a person in that condition. I should have to lie in the undertaker’s cellar until the ship would remove me and it is dark down there and unpleasant.”

—Mark Twain, Letter to Albert Bigelow Paine, 1910
Returning Home from Bermuda, 1910.

What a great way to go: stoically, whimsically, with his ever-present twinkle in the eye.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.