May 23, 2013— -- Philosophy professor Simon Critchley from New York City's New School said he believes that the only way to really learn how to live is to prepare to die.
So, as part of a larger theatrical installation this spring called School of Death, he offered a suicide note writing workshop to anyone who was interested in appreciating its literary art form.
The notes studied ranged from the terse and emotionally conflicted -- "Dear Betty: I hate you, Love George" -- to the narcissistic: "Now you will appreciate me."
One man, before killing himself, wrote on the back of his wife's photograph after she had run away with his brother, "I present the girl I thought I married. Always remember, I loved you once and died hating you."
"The worst thing that can befall us is to die alone," said Critchley, 53. "And the suicide note in some strange way is not to die alone. It's always addressed to someone. It's a failed attempt at communication."
He said that if people were more comfortable talking about death, there might be fewer suicides.
"We talk about taxes, but death is kind of obscene," he said. "When faced with the actual issue -- for example the Terri Schiavo case -- we don't know what to do, emote or gloat."
The workshop, which was first reported by The New York Times, was advertised through social media. Those who signed up, ages 20 to 50, analyzed some of history's most famous last words, those of Adolph Hitler, Virginia Woolf and Kurt Cobain.
Suicide notes are part of the "fantasy to get our last word," said Critchley. "Saying goodbye also says how much someone means to you."
Novelist Woolf, just before drowning herself in 1941, writes to her husband, Leonard Woolf, that she is "going mad again" and hearing voices. "I can't fight any longer. … I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."
Hitler writes in 1945 from the Berlin bunker where he and lover Eva Braun took cyanide: "I have chosen death in order to escape the terrible situation of disgrace I am currently in. … Things were going just as planned before, but little did I know it would backfire on me."
In 1994, Kurt Cobain, borrowing liberally from songwriter Neil Young, writes with great affection to his wife, Courtney Love, and daughter Frances: "I am too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don't have the passion anymore, and so remember, it's better to burn out than fade away." He then shot himself in the head.
Critchley's class may seem macabre, but some experts say it is refreshing.
"Morbidity has become fashionable again," said Elke Weesjes, founder and editor- in-chief of the United Academics Journal of Social Science. She is currently working on a journal with the theme "Morbid Curiosity," covering topics such as post-mortem photography, taxidermy and skull worship.
"Before 1880 people butchered their own animals; death was laid out in the parlor before the whole family," said Weesjes, 33. "People who moved to America were fleeing death one way or another -- fleeing the Holocaust, pogroms and famine. We have created a false society and island away from disasters. Death is not part of our everyday life anymore."
Though Weesjes did not attend Critchley's class she said, "Maybe it's good to have a smile on your face and laugh about it, but actually talking about it is a very good thing."
"The Western world is about to get ready to bury the biggest generation in history – the baby boomers," she said. "It only makes sense to start thinking about it. … Denying death can't be healthy."
Today, physician-assisted suicide is only openly legal in Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and three U.S. states: Oregon, Washington and Montana.
Modern philosophy began with the suicide of Socrates, who was condemned to death. He tells his friend Phaedo, before drinking hemlock, "You should be prepared for death and not terrified by it," according to Critchley.
The Romans, as well as the Greeks, and the Vikings, had an open attitude toward suicide. The Vikings immolated themselves at sea in preparation for their heaven, Valhalla.
But in the fifth century, the view that suicide was a honorable gesture were rejected as paganism by Christians, who held that, "to kill yourself is to assume power only God has," said Critchley. "It's kind of a hubris."
The suicide note became popularized in the 18th century with the rise of literacy and newspapers in England, according to Crtichley.
By the Victorian age, in the 19th century, the culture revered death in elaborate memorials and funerals. "They had problems with sex," he said. "We talk endlessly about how much sex we are having and don't talk about death."
Critchley had an idea to do a School of Death -- the antithesis of the ever cheerful School of Life in London, which bills itself as "a cultural enterprise offering good ideas for everyday life" -- which led to his monthlong installation and workshops.
His book on Shakespeare's "Hamlet," who contemplates killing himself in the opening scene, was about to be published and so began Critchley's fascination with the final farewell.
Suicide notes are typically "obsessed with small details," he said. The Japanese Nobel-nominated author Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide by Samurai sword after a failed coup d'etat in the 1970s.
"He was obsessed about whether the Japanese Army or Police had conducted certain activities," said Critchley.
Nazi leader Hermann Goering wrote three suicide notes after the Nuremburg trials. "When he finds out he is to be hanged and not shot, he said, 'I am happy to be shot, but to be hanged is too great a shame.'"
Suicide notes are often an attempt to blame someone else or send "hate messages to the world."
"I have taken my life to provide capital for you," Alex C. wrote to his wife after battling the IRS for taking all his money. "It's the only decision I can make. ... I hope you understand I love you completely."
Some are copycats. Take, for example, those who throw themselves off the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. "They jump off the side facing the city, not the ocean," Critchley said. "This idea of suicide as a kind of exhibitionism on display is important."
He said that he feared people would think the class was a joke, but he added that students, who had to write their own suicide notes, were, "earnest and engaged."
Wrote one woman: "I am so filled with love it is still all too much to bear. I cannot find my way. The world is all wrong and although I withstood the worst of it, I lost out."
But another was less emotional: "I am sorry, mostly to my dog. Love, Lauren. P.S. Please don't bury me in Los Angeles."
In the end, Critchley's favorite note to emerge from his class was the humorous one written by his wife, Jamieson, a psychiatrist:
Break a leg, or all your legs. I better break fast.
With all my love-hate,
Jamieson (who is about to drive us off a cliff)