“You knew how to do three great things well. You knew how to live, how to love, and how to die.”
These were the words, a piercing valedictory, that were written about a married couple who died on the Titanic in 1912. The writer was an American author, editor and publisher named Elbert Hubbard, very famous in his day. A month after the sinking, he elegized Ida Straus (wife of the Macy’s co-owner) for her determination to give up her place in a lifeboat rather than be separated from her husband. “Mr. and Mrs. Straus,” Hubbard wrote, “I envy you that legacy of love and loyalty left to your children and grandchildren. The calm courage that was yours all your long and useful career was your possession in death.”
Bizarrely, three years later—exactly a hundred years ago Thursday—Hubbard and his wife Alice were among the 1,196 people who died when the British passenger ship Lusitania was struck by the torpedo of a German submarine. Like the Strauses before them, the Hubbards chose to go down with the ship.
“Neither appeared perturbed in the least,” wrote one survivor, Ernest Cowper, in a letter to Hubbard’s son. “Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms—the fashion in which they always walked the deck . . . I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’ The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him. It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.”
There is something both haunting and oddly uplifting about the stories of long-married couples who die at the same time. Whatever may have transpired between them over the years, the tidiness of their exit gives their marriage a fairy-tale flavor: They live a good life together and die happily ever after. A few months ago, a California couple who had been married for 67 years died within hours of each other, their hospital beds pushed together so the husband and wife could hold hands. One telling of the story inspired 68,000 likes on Facebook. In 2011, a similar tale on the Huffington Post generated 2,399 comments.
Six years of research with my husband for an anthology about marriage—The Marriage Book—turned up dozens upon dozens of similar stories. More than 300 years ago, an item in a Boston newspaper told of Henry and Mary Clisly, “two Persons [who] were born in one and the same Month, married at 20, lived 55 years together, and both died in one Night.” In 1900, a headline in The Washington Post told a similar tale: “LIVED AND DIED TOGETHER. News of Wife’s Demise Proved a Fatal Shock to Age Husband. Henry and Ann McCabe, Married Forty Years and Each Sixty-Five Years Old, Die Within an Hour of Each Other.”
Dying together, hand in hand, or hours apart after a full, happy marriage, has a certain appeal. (Happiness is key, by the way; you never read about couples dying together in the midst of window-rattling arguments.) In the invented vocabulary of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a cosmically linked group of people is called a karass, and a duprass is a karass consisting of only two. “A true duprass,” writes Vonnegut, “can’t be invaded, not even by children born of such a union. . . members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.” More recently, in the film version of The Notebook (though not the novel—novelists tend to get away with more ambiguity), the main characters die in each other’s arms. The implicit romance is simple: Till death do us part? Hell no!
There is a graveyard in the Netherlands where that sentiment has been made both permanent and three-dimensional. In this graveyard, a wall separates the Catholic from the Protestant dead. A 19th-century couple who had in life defied the intermarriage taboo made sure to defy it in death as well. According to their wishes, they were buried in a way that left them—if only in stone monuments—forever holding hands.
In his article about the Titanic, Hubbard wrote: “One thing sure, there are just two respectable ways to die. One is of old age, and the other is by accident. All disease is indecent. Suicide is atrocious. But to pass out as did Mr. and Mrs. Isador Straus is glorious. Few have such a privilege. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated, and in death they are not divided.” A bit less floridly, online comments about, say, the California couple, echo Hubbard’s tribute: “Now that’s the way it’s done!” “Hope Judy and I can be so blessed.” “So beautiful a love story!”
Sure, there are always a few naysayers out there. Last year a Brazilian couple dying within an hour of each other inspired one poster to write: “Wow. It’s like he was saying, ‘it’s ok, you can go now. No more suffering. We’ll be together forever.’ And she understood. Just, wow.” “Sentimental gibberish,” said another. And a third: “to attribute and embellish [the married couple’s death] with a ‘true love’ story is absurd and is simply wishful thinking.”
But if this is wishful thinking, what is the wish?
I think the wish is implicit in what Hubbard called the Straus’ “legacy of love.” The wish is that marriage—if it lasts a long time, if it’s been a devoted and loving and generous one—will somehow be rewarded by a devoted and loving, even generous, end. No one needs to suffer. No one’s left holding the bag. It’s the end of a story in which the loose ends aren’t just tied up, but are forever tied together.
“I suppose,” Ernest Cowper, the Lusitania survivor, wrote to Hubbard’s son in 1915, “you have asked yourself the question: ‘Was it possible for them to have been saved? Did they really do all that could be done?’ To this I would say they could do nothing more than was done, especially if they wanted to remain together, and apparently there was no intention on either side of separating.”