Too Old to Live, Too Young to Die

Tucker McCarthy

Many people come to a point in their lives where they want nothing more than to die. For most it happens when the body and mind slow to the point of immobility. Conveniently enough, death usually follows soon after the death wish is decided upon. There are, however, some individuals of whom Death seems to forget about for a while.

Caribbean born Elizabeth Israel, who eventually died in 2003, lived for an unconfirmed 128 years. The oldest documented life span, however, was 122 years, belonging to a French woman who met Vincent van Gogh in 1879 when she was 14 and proceeded to live for another 108 years. There are many more people celebrated for their longevity. Sarah Knauss of Allentown, PA lived to 119. Marie-Louise Meilleur of Ontario died at the ripe old age of 117. And Joe Thomas of Louisiana lived to the not-so-average age of 111.

For the most part, these people are known only for their age. Sure, Willard Scott and Smuckers might have given an anecdote or two, but the crucial number is always the loneliest one. Usually it is not until a person reaches a milestone (like the oldest black American or the oldest person in the history of Ireland) that that person’s story is revealed. Most people didn’t know that Jeanne Calment met France’s most famous painter until her one hundred thirteenth birthday drew media interest. Even then, it was another person’s fame that was of primary interest. Appropriately, that person, Vincent van Gogh, died at the age of thirty-seven. Providing a foil to Jeanne Calment, van Gogh’s age at the time of his death only furthered the legacy that was his life. People like Calment, however, are not known for their lives, but rather only for their ages at the time of their deaths.

We all know that Billy Joel belted the words “only the good die young,” but that belief had been around long before 1977. John Donne said of Death, “soonest our best men with thee do go.” He wrote this in 1633, almost 350 years before Billy. Regardless of when it was said, however, it is a belief that many people hold as true. Dying young might be the appropriate end to a life of greatness because it will always be wondered exactly how great that person could have been.

Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin have more in common than just the initial “J.” Each of these era-molding musicians died at 27. Their lives were the 60s and, fittingly, each died when the 60s ended. Similarly, James Dean, the icon of 1950s rebelliousness died young at the age of 24. Many other influential people passed on before time could whittle them. Anne Frank was 15, Joan of Arc 19; Biggie was 24 and John Keats 25. Although how these people died is as significant as when, the fact remains that no one can ever know what their contribution to the world could have been had they lived to 100.

The question, then, is which is better: to live for over a century in relative obscurity or to die young and die famous? Most people would probably rather be known for the content of their years as opposed to the quantity. Others, however, might gladly accept a non-famous life in exchange for the opportunity to see their children’s children. If you could ask the relatively small number of people that this pertains to, I imagine the answers would vary. John Harvard, who died at 30, might have liked to see the early growth of the university that bears his name, whereas Elizabeth Bolden, currently 116, might trade longevity for the chance to be remembered for something else.

Death is the greatest inevitability there is. And, except for suicide, we don’t really have a choice as to when it is going to happen. Famous or not, we all have the chance to make an impact. What we should learn from those people that died young, people like Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus H. (what does the “H” stand for anyway) Christ, is that we better start making a difference now before we are laughing with the sinners or crying with the saints.