Many People Die at Twenty-Five and Aren’t Buried Until They Are Seventy-Five

Benjamin Franklin? George S. Patton? G. E. Marchand? Gertrude Nelson Andrews? Nicholas Murray Butler? George Lawton? Peter McWilliams? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Living fully during each day of one’s allotted time in this world is an admirable goal, yet few achieve this objective. Here are two versions of a humorous and melancholy comment often credited to U.S. political leader Benjamin Franklin:

(1) Many men die at age 25, but aren’t buried until they’re 75.
(2) Some people die at 25 and are not buried until 75.

I am skeptical of this attribution because I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the ascription to Benjamin Franklin. Searching Franklin’s oeuvre at franklinpapers.org yields nothing germane.

The phrasing is highly variable, and the two numbers specified fluctuate; hence, this family of sayings is quite difficult to trace. The earliest match located by QI appeared in April 1925 within a St. Louis, Missouri newspaper report about popular orator G. E. Marchand who told a large audience that personality was the key to success. Marchand employed a version of the saying based on the years 25 and 60: 1

“Most men and women die intellectually at 25, but are not buried until 60,” he said. “Many have big brains but little jobs because they are walking about in their shroud.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 1925 “The Montclair Times” of New Jersey reported on a speech delivered by playwright and author Gertrude Nelson Andrews who employed an instance based on the years 50 and 80: 2

There is no reason why a person shouldn’t be young at eighty, but there are a whole lot of people who die at fifty and aren’t buried until they are eighty. We have a right to be useful and creative if we live to be 100. A man at eighty should be a masterpiece, not something to be thrown on the dump heap.

In 1926 “The Word and Way” of Kansas City, Missouri published a note from a correspondent in California who attributed an instance based on the years 40 and 80 to unidentified “club women”: 3

Some prominent club women have recently said out here on the coast that some folks die at 40 but are not buried until 80, but it is cruel for the citizens of San Pedro to allude to the retired farmers of Long Beach as “the living dead from Iowa.”

In 1935 the “Arlington Heights Herald” of Illinois printed a collection of “Mortal Thoughts From Immortals” which included the following three items: 4

Flattery is a splendid cure for a stiff neck—there are few heads it won’t turn.

“The world steps aside to let any man pass who knows whither he is going.”—Old Italian Proverb.

Some people die at thirty, but are not buried until eighty.

The 1940 book “Beyond the Facts” by J. Richard Sneed attributed an instance to a U.S. philosopher and educator: 5

Yes, how easy it is to abandon an ideal in the parlor of one’s soul and walk out the back door, leaving it to die for want of companionship. Nicholas Murray Butler could have had such a person in mind when he talked about those who die at thirty but are not buried until they are sixty.

In 1945 Dr. M. L. Walters of Chicago addressed a Y.M.C.A. sports banquet and emphasized the importance of physical fitness: 6

“Due to lack of physical exercise many men die at 30, but aren’t buried until 60,” said the speaker who stressed the importance of participation in sports for all persons, rather than just a spectator’s interest. “America must get off its seat and upon its feet,” he declared . . .

In 1947 the saying was also circulating in England. “The Observer” newspaper of London printed the following under “Sayings of the Week”: 7

“Our society is not producing enough mature persons. Too many of us who die at 40 are not buried until 70.”—Dr. George Lawton.

Also, in 1947 a columnist in a Rockland County, New York newspaper credited an unnamed comedian with an instance: 8

I heard a comedian say a few days ago that many people die at 40 but are not buried until they are 70. That was supposed to be a joke. It isn’t a joke. It is the bitter truth. You stop living when you stop being useful.

In 1960 Mrs. Ben O. Duggan who was the President of the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs employed an instance: 9

Nobody can accuse Mrs. Duggan, who loves to tell people to double their age and see how much time they have left, of not living up to her “Wake up and live” theme. Shuddered she, “Why, some women die when they’re 40 and aren’t buried until they’re 70. I think it’s awful.”

In 1963 educator Esther Middlewood spoke to a group in Lansing, Michigan and used the saying: 10

Miss Middlewood said that in our society too many people die at 34 and don’t get buried until they’re 69! They don’t live really effective lives.

The 1965 religious book “What Can I Believe?” by Walter L. Cook included the following version: 11

There are some people who die in their early 20’s but are not buried until they are in their 60’s or 70’s. All their days they merely exist; they do not really live. Their lives are so much drab routine.

In 1966 “The New York Times” wrote about a 15-week course designed for older women, usually mothers, who wished to pursue continuing education, second careers, or community service: 12

“It’s shocking what happens to mothers in this country,” said Dr. Ruth Osborne, director of the course. “They die at 40, and they’re not buried until they’re 80.”

The 1971 book “Handbook of Sales Humor for All Situations” printed a version tailored to sales people: 13

It’s been said that some inept salesmen die at the age of thirty but remain on the payroll and are not buried until they reach the age of 65.

In 1979 a book about U.S. General George S. Patton attributed an instance to him: 14

I remember Gen. Patton saying “A lot of people die at forty but are not buried until thirty years later. Many people have a short tour with an illness and give up or die at an early age. They go from doctor to doctor until death catches them in bed.”

In 1986 “The Ottawa Citizen” of Canada printed a remark from Walter Cameron, a former blacksmith: 15

“The closer you get to 90,” Cameron was once quoted as saying, “the younger 90 seems . . . you know there’s some people die at 17 and don’t get buried until they’re 75.”

In 1987 the syndicated columnist L. M. Boyd attributed an instance to Benjamin Franklin. This was the earliest linkage to Franklin located by QI. The famous leader died in 1790, so this is very weak evidence: 16

Said Benjamin Franklin: “Many young men die at age 25, but are not buried until they’re 75.”

In 1990 Robert Byrne’s compilation “The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” contained this entry: 17

Many men die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.
Benjamin Franklin (1706—1790)

In conclusion, this family of sayings began to circulate by 1925. QI tentatively credits G. E. Marchand with the earliest instance although subsequent research may uncover earlier citations. Currently, there is no substantive evidence that Benjamin Franklin used a version of this saying.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of young and old people from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Keijo Kangur and Fake History Hunter whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Fake History Hunter noted the absence of the remark in the Franklin Papers database.)

Notes:

  1. 1925 April 2, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 1500 Persons Hear Marchand in First of Lecture Series, Quote Page 7, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1925 October 17, The Montclair Times, State Federation Meets, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Montclair, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1926 November 11, The Word and Way, California Letter by A. P. Howells, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Published by The Western Baptist Publishing Company, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1935 July 12, Arlington Heights Herald, Mortal Thoughts From Immortals, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Arlington Heights, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1940, Beyond the Facts by J Richard Sneed, Chapter: The Staying Power, Quote Page 112, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1945 April 28, Moline Daily Dispatch, Claims Man Slips Physically As He Reaches Mental Prime, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Moline, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1947 January 12, The Observer, Sayings of the Week, Quote Page 6, Column 6, London, England. (ProQuest)
  8. 1947 January 21, The Journal-News, Looking at Life by Eric Brandeis, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Nyack, Rockland County, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1960 November 16, Chattanooga Daily Times, Knows Women’s Potential Force by Mary M. Reynolds, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1963 January 17, The State Journal, Lansing Area Women Hear Talk by Miss Middlewood, Quote Page B8, Column 6, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1965, What Can I Believe?: Talks To Youth on the Christian Faith by Walter L. Cook, Chapter 10: How May We Grow in the Christian Faith?, Quote Page 96, Abingdon Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1966 January 5, New York Times, Washington Mothers Go Back to School and Learn Self-Confidence by Frances Lanahan (Special to the New York Times), Quote Page 27, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  13. 1971 Copyright, Handbook of Sales Humor for All Situations by Henri Saint-Laurent, Topic: Early Retirement, Quote Page 47 and 48, Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, New York. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1979, I Remember General Patton’s Principles by Porter B. Williamson, Chapter 7: Principles for Life and Death, Section: Never let death catch you in bed, Quote Page 155, MSC Management and Systems Consultants, Tucson, Arizona. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1986 November 25, The Ottawa Citizen, ‘Blacksmith of Fallbrook’ died on weekend at age 92 by Citizen Correspondent, Quote Page c3, Column 2, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1987 September 14, The Evening Telegram (Rocky Mount Telegram), Odds & Ends: Kangaroos need to breathe while hopping by L. M. Boyd (Syndicated column), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1990, The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 66, Atheneum: Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link