A Natural History of the Dead is a story in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. It is divided, by subject and style, into two parts, the first part of which reads like non-fiction and the second a short story, or the nidus of one.

The first section (4.5 pages) is a fairly grisly accounting of the title and describes different modes of dying and the dead, especially in war time, especially regarding WWI.The second section (2 pages) involves a medical unit with a field physician and several soldiers, none of them officers as high as the physician. They are discussing a terminally injured soldier who is dying of a devastating injury to the head. The physician does not want to waste any effort or, worse, his limited supply of morphine on a lost cause. Eventually there is verbal and even physical violence over this dispute.


This short story is unusual for Hemingway for several reasons. First it is quite discursive and not at all in his signature style of economy and parsimonious diction and syntax. If a freshman were to submit this essay for a freshman English assignment, he or she would receive it back with the comment "Not so many commas!!!!" Next, it is nowhere as smooth as EH's best efforts, like Indian Camp or Short Happy Life. The jarring transition from the first to second part is strikingly inharmonious.

The latter half of the story is a narrative set piece for the medical ethics of triage and its capacity to foment disagreement amongst family, friends and providers. This story offers an excellent opportunity for students of lit & med, medical ethics in literature, especially during wartime, and also an unusual opportunity to compare it to other Hemingway stories in this database.

Primary Source

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.


Scribner; NY, NY


1987: pages 335-341

Page Count