EAST HARTFORD, Conn., Jan. 29 —
To say Emma Faust Tillman lived a full life would be an epic understatement.
She was one of 23 children born to former slaves in North Carolina, and one of only 15 who lived to adulthood. She was the first black student to graduate from Glastonbury High School, just a few miles south of here, and voted in the first election in which women were allowed to do so. Discrimination prevented her finding a job as a secretary, so she began catering, eventually baking cakes for Katharine Hepburn’s father and Jackie Robinson.
Mrs. Tillman, who died Sunday, was known as the “mother” of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church in Hartford, where she sang in the choir for more than 70 years.
And last Wednesday she was declared the oldest person in the world, at 114 years, 63 days and counting.
Whether she ever knew she received the title is unclear. When the television news cameras crowded into the lobby of her nursing home here, Mrs. Tillman acknowledged them but was unable to speak, her head hanging down, a blank look on her face.
By the time they left, she was exhausted and returned to the bedroom she moved to in 2003, after decades of living independently. She went to sleep and never woke up again.
The title of “world’s oldest person” is now apparently passed to Yone Minagawa of Japan, who was born within weeks of Mrs. Tillman and turned 114 this month.
And though it is perhaps impolite to mention, recent history suggests that Ms. Minagawa may not hold the crown for long. In the last month alone, the title of oldest person has changed hands three times, according to the Gerontology Research Group, an authority on the matter.
“The Guinness Book of World Records will not be able to keep up,” said Dr. L. Stephen Coles of the University of California, Los Angeles, the executive director of the group. “This has been a pretty volatile time. Usually we’ve had a more stable No. 1 position.”
On average, Dr. Coles said, the “oldest person” retains the title for about eight months. But since August, there have been five. Dr. Coles said that this was nothing more than a statistical anomaly.
Even among those who age gracefully, few live long enough to become supercentenarians, the term given to those older than 110. With the death of Mrs. Tillman, the gerontology group has records of 84 such people in the world: 6 men and 78 women.
Dr. Coles acknowledged, though, that it is likely that the list, which relies on notification from relatives or neighbors, vastly underestimates the number.
For those who are known to be in that select circle, life as a very old person can become quite a public affair. Mrs. Tillman, for her part, did not shy away from the attention, happy to take in the birthday parties for her at the convalescent home.
On her 113th birthday in 2005, Mrs. Tillman received 113 long-stem red roses from a much younger man — Donald Pitkin, a member of the East Hartford Town Council, who at the time was 84. “My, my, what a lot of beautiful flowers,” those who were present recall her saying. “It makes a woman think she might want to get married again.”
Mrs. Tillman’s husband died in 1939, before the United States entered World War II. She outlived countless other relatives, including one of her two daughters. But of the four siblings who moved north with Mrs. Tillman at the turn of the 20th century, all lived past age 100.
There is no consensus on what allows certain people to live so long, but there is wide agreement that good genes are the best predictor of a long life. It probably helped, too, that Mrs. Tillman neither smoked nor drank.
She also did not drive. But with the exception of relying on others for rides, Mrs. Tillman lived quite independently. After first voting in 1920, she cast a ballot in every election until 2006. She attended church weekly until her 114th birthday, on Nov. 22.
That day, Mrs. Tillman was quite subdued, but she perked up when the choir sang two of her favorite songs, “In the Garden” and “Passing Through,” said John Stewart Jr., one of her great-nephews, who attended the service with her.
It was the last time Mrs. Tillman would leave her home, he said. He recalled her remarking on the milestone: “I’m 114. It’s enough now,” she said. “I’ll go whenever the man upstairs calls me home.”
Mrs. Tillman is survived by her 80-year-old daughter, Majorie. But the large extended family is something of a complicated clan: the funeral program will list 7 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren, 16 great-great-grandchildren and 16 great-great-great-grandchildren.
“She was the glue that held us all together,” said Mr. Stewart, the family historian and a former chief of the Hartford Fire Department — the first African-American fire chief in New England. “She has served the good Lord, she has served the church, she has served us. What better legacy can she leave?”
Once it became clear on Friday that Mrs. Tillman was entering her final days, family members filed into her room. They quickly decided they would not attach her to a feeding tube or other machines, preferring to let her die in what doctors said would be a matter of days.
By Sunday evening, Mr. Stewart said, she looked as though she had more color in her face, and a smile seemed to have appeared on her lips.