Death Stories: Peter Schjeldahl

“Death is like painting rather than like sculpture, because it’s seen from only one side,” writes art critic and New Yorker writer Peter Schjeldahl. 77, he has terminal lung cancer. Not unexpected, he admits, after a lifetime of smoking.

In a long article on his life, offering observations on all sorts of subjects, the writer keeps circling back to death. “Life doesn’t go on,” he writes later in the article. “It goes nowhere except away. Death goes on. Going on is what death does for a living. The secret to surviving in the universe is to be dead.”

He doesn’t believe in God, though he finds disbelieving “toilsome.” He lives in an “as if basis” with God, which “hugely improves my life. ”

Those He Will Leave

Schjeldahl wryly comments on the way people will react to this death. “As for folks out there in resentful and envious circles who will be glad to have me out of the way, they, by their pleasure, afford me a bonus credit for increasing human happiness.”

An art website declares that everyone loves him. “I know for dead sure that’s not so. To the extent that it’s plausible hyperbole and because I believe in a balanced universe, the people who hate me do so with enough intensity to square up the sums.”

He does not want to be cremated. “Bury me. Nix to cremation. I want an address that people know they can visit even if they never do. Phooey to dust on a random sea breeze or strewn on a field of unoffending vegetation. Or in a jar? Think about it.”

Or maybe he does. “Really, do as you please with the corpse—not me, not mine. I believe in earnestly agreeing to deathbed wishes and then forgetting about them, unless it’s to satisfy those among the living.”

His Turn to Survey Life

In the last section of the article, he mentions that he doesn’t think about death as much as he did. His thinking about it when younger “cut channels in which I now slip along.”

This channels “involve acceptance. Why me? Why not me? In point of fact, me. Dying is my turn to survey life from its far — now near — shore. These extra months are a luxury that I hope to have put to good use. ‘To have put.’ See? While here, not here. Like a camera situated nowhere and taking in every last detail of the pulsating world.”

Schjeldahl concludes: “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks. Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”


Peter Schjeldahl’s “77 Sunset Me” appeared in the 23 December 2019 issue of The New Yorker. It can be read online here.


The picture is by Paolo Nero, who released it into the public domain.

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