Friday, January 06, 2006

Your own dying words ... write them here

Among the many heartbreaks in the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia is the poignant story of the miners who scribbled their final thoughts on scraps of paper, knowing they'd soon be dead.

"Tell all - I see them on the other side," Martin Toler wrote in pencil on an insurance form in the dark, "It wasn't bad, I just went to sleep." And at the bottom, "I love you."

Another note said: "We're not suffering. We just went to sleep."

Partly because it's a timeless fear that we won't be able to speak those last important messages before we die, and partly because underground mine disasters are a rarity in modern news, readers' hearts go out to these families whose last words from their fathers, brothers and sons will be written on the backs of pay stubs and old grocery receipts.

But the practice among underground miners -- who live every day knowing that such a fate is possible -- is an old one. Tragically, death underground is slow (and certain) enough to allow time to write such notes.

Dolores Riggs Davis, an Ohio historian and an expert on mining disasters, told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in 2000, that it's a perfect storm of human impulse and circumstances.

"I've seen my share of these letters," she told reporter Rex Bowman. "People desperately want to reach out to a loved one. They'll tear scraps from paper bags to write a note. They want people to know what they were feeling when they died."

In a 1902 Tennessee mine disaster, J.L. Powell wrote to his wife:

"Dear Ellen, I will have to leave you in bad condition. But dear wife, put your trust in the Lord to help you raise my little children. Ellen, take care of my litle darling Lillie. Ellen, little Elbert [also in the mine] said he believed in the Lord. He said he was saved if we never see the outside again, he would meet his mother in heaven. He would meet his mother in heaven if he never lived to git out. We are not hurt bad, only perishing for air. There is but few of us here. I don't know where the other miners are at. Elbert said for you all to meet us in heaven, All the children meet us both in heaven."
Another miner in the same hole wrote:

"Alice, do the best you can. I am going to rest. Goodbye Alice. Elbert said the lord had saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all perishing for air to support us. But it is getting so bad without any air. Charlie said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1-1/2 o'clock. Marvell Harmon's watch is now in Andy Wood's hands. ...Raise the children the best way you can. Oh how I would love to be with you. Goodbye to all of you. Bury me an Elbert in the same grave. Tell little Ellen goodbye. Goodbye Ellen. Goodbye Horace. We are together. It is now 25 minutes after 2 o'clock. A few of us are alive yet, Jacob and Elbert.OH GOD FOR ONE MORE BREATH."
In a 1915 West Virginia mine explosion, miner Bill Derenge wrote:

"We are all still alive but not knowing [how] long God will spare me so dear friends should it be Gods will that I must die you will find on me a Gold watch and a purse with $10 and 90 cts and the rest of my belongings is at G John Souls house such as trunk and clothes So please notify my father and restore everything safely to him So God being my helper I will close."
So imagine this: You're a mile below ground, huddled in the dark, cut off from rescue and all you can do is wait to die. You have a pencil and a piece of paper the size of a pay stub.

What will you write?


Deanndra said...

Thank you for visiting my blog! What a wonderful post! I see you've done some research with it. Normally, news stories do not touch me much, and I don't pay much attention. There is so much tragedy spread among the world, and it seems never anything good. But this mine story touched me. And it has been an emotional rollercoaster this week watching it. What a fine post you've written. I will visit here again.

And if I had a chance to write out my own dying words, I should think I would write the following:

"[however I am feeling], and I am at peace. I love my family and friends very much, and feel blessed to have been graced with their presence. I have [hopefully] made peace with God, and I know that I will be joining Bootsie. I will wait for you all."

Hmm, writing this definitely makes one think, doesn't it?

Ranando said...

Thanks for stopping by The Ranando Report and leaving a comment.

Great post, I would write something like:

"Babe, I love you and I'm leaving you with a smile on my face, I'll see you soon,"

The Ranando Report

Bookworm said...

That's an amazing post you did. I'm linking, and I thank you.

TexasFred said...

Moonbats abound:
Democratic Underground

This one is even worse:
Democratic Underground

Very little intelligence but a lot of rants and raves... Maybe you can use these folks for a thesis... There are psychosis' to spare...

It's all a plot, and the notes were planted... Sure, UhHuh.. really... DU said so... And these are the people that WANT to run the USA...

BTW, great post...

Andy said...

That's a very powerful post. Nicely researched. I can't imagine what I would write.

As far as my blaming the newspapers, I am a print journalist here in Rome, GA. I intended to critique the deadline system as well.

Print should dig deep and explain, not break the news anymore.

Andrea Teague said...

What do I do.... *sigh*... I think of my happiest moments and make sure to write to my husband... that I adore him, to my friends... I appreciate them all, and to my parents & family... just simply thank you. Words do not express what I would feel. I imagine that I would reflect on my life and focus on my last image that I saw as I faded to black that of my husband the first time I met him... of his smile with amber eyes... and just how beautiful he was and how happy I was that things were complete.

Love, Rita said...

Wow, that was quite awesome. I had no idea that fatal mining accidents had prompted others to write notes and that the notes had been preserved.

I don't know what I would want to tell my family. Perhaps just that I love them would be enough.... I couldn't honestly say I had no regrets (because I do), and I would want to spare them if dying were an uncomfortable or painful experience. I just don't know...

J. Serrano said...

Excellent post, thanks for checking out my blog.

Dying words..I guess I would write:

"Don't worry about me, I am without pain and at peace. Take care of yourselves and continue to live as you did before. If ever you feel sad or miss me just remember that we will all see eachother again. Thank you for putting up with me for all these years, you guys rock! I love you all, later days."

Depending on how much time I had to write it and the situation I would also try to put in a few jokes to leave my family with a smile.

kitty said...

I think even if I was in pain I'd tell my loved ones that I wasn't, because thinking/knowing that a loved one died in pain is too painful for the survivors to bear.

I think I'd write something like:
"My family is everything to me. I love you all so much. Don't despair because I am not in pain; I'm merely falling asleep. I thank God for the life I did have, and I thank God for you."

Kathy said...

The letters from the dying miners will stay with me for a long time. Those letters certainly made me think about what I would write, and I'm still not sure. I would surely express the joy and love my family has brought me. Personal beliefs would probably have me write something about not being alone as I died.

I'm curious Ron. What would you write?

KT said...

Thank you for writing this article. It is such an intensely painful subject and the miners that left comforting messages for their families showed an almost supernatural grace upon leaving here.

Ron Franscell said...

One reason I know about the death notes in mine disasters is that I am now writing a historic novel that features, ironically, a coal mine disaster in the turn-of-the-century West. What would I write on my death note? It might sound a lot like what I wrote in that novel. Here's a small piece of it:

... More than four hours elapsed in that smoky hole as they inched upward, never certain of how far they might be forced to climb, perhaps to Heaven itself, skipping the formality of a funeral altogether.

The first boy to emerge collapsed just outside the hole, then the others crawled out and fell upon him. Little Jimmy was last, but he was finally free of the Hell below. Before he fell unconscious, he looked up and saw the stars.

When the men carried him to the little hospital on the hill, they found a note he’d written in charcoal on the back of a powder keg’s label and stuffed in his vest pocket, expecting to die down there.

“Dearest Father,” he’d scrawled in the dark, “don’t cry.”

TexasFred said...

Ron, it is no wonder you're a novelist, you're really good Sir...

I have to wonder, would I be bitter or only say "Goodbye??

Would I fight for life to the last breath or simply lay down and surrender??

I *think* I would be fighting to find a way out til the last breath, I *think*... That's always been my operational mode, it's the life long training and the job I did over the years, never give up no matter the odds...

I have never considered writing a *goodbye* note, it's just NOT in my makeup... And even now, I can't begin to compose one, even in fiction...

And I have to say, my heart felt sympathies go to the families of the deceased miners, I DO hope those notes helped them find peace...

Ranando said...


Once again, great post on a vrey sad subject.

I have always enjoyed your work and look forward to your new ones.

Keep up the good work.

jenny said...

thanks for visiting a lefty blog! I really don't think I could say anything better than what Martin Toler said. A farewell note from Martin Toler Jr., 51, who died in the Sago mine. "Tell all - I see them on the other side," Mr. Toler, a 51-year-old mine foreman, wrote. Nearby were the words, "It wasn't bad, I just went to sleep." And at the bottom, "I love you."

i pray my cousin, a miner near moundsville, wv, never has to write such a note.

Anonymous said...

texasfred appears to have a reading comprehension problem because no one at d.u. said any notes were planted. but i'm not surprised as lying about the other side is rather typical these days from the type that call democrats moonbats.

keeper said...

i've been saying a lot of what i want to say on my blog ... but if i knew it was my time, my thoughts and voice would reflect the ending of my earthly life and beginning my eternal life...

Dearest Loved Ones,
Instead of turning my eyes upon His face .. I now can say I am walking into His Presence. His Everlasting Arms envelope me. I am at Peace .. Perfect Peace. Live abundantly!!! Know I love you deeply. Heaven is furtile with learning and I am excited for my new adventure. I continue to pray for you ... my love, my fellowship, my communion still is with you.."Trust the Lord and do good. Dwell in the Lord and feed on His Faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will take care of your heart." Ps 37:3-4
~ always treasured

Anna said...

Just an idea, but since we all have computers, write your notes and keep them in a special file. Anything you want your family to know can be kept there. (and backed up on disk) No matter when or how you go, they will know how you felt about them and your wishes for them.

SingingSkies said...

I haven't the foggiest idea what I would write. Part of me hopes it would be something like:

Don't forget I love you. Going home. Know you'll feel sad. We'll be together someday. Sing the Hallelujah Chorus for me.

Amazing what those miners had the presence of mind to give to those who would be left behind. Thanks for the post.

Joe Gringo said...

Mr. Franscell,

Great post, and an interesting exercise, thank you for visiting!

I suppose I would write something like......"My Dear Fanny (wife), I met you and fell in love with you under the most beautiful circumstances. Thank you for raising our 3 fantastic kids with me and tell your side of the family in Jalisco, I love them. I leave this world without pain and that great memory of our first kiss. See you and the kids one day, make each count!

Joe Gringo said...

make each day count

Val said...

Wow, what a hard one this is. I can't imagine, knowing you are going to die and wanting to write something that makes sense and makes an impact on those left behind, after all, it will be your final words to them.
I know I'd tell my husband thanks for being the best friend I ever had, I'd thank my parents for everything they ever did for me,I'd tell each of my kids what I loved about them, Rains courage, SOns humor, Babygirls Compassion for others, I'd encourage them to stay close and take care of each other. I'd tell them that my love will be with them to their end, and that I'd wait at the gates for them. I'd write real tiny so I could fit it all on that little piece of paper. There's be so much to say, you'd have to think it out first, making each of the words count.