On Tuesday, I saw a dead body. I’ve seen dead bodies before, but they were laid out in caskets, prepared for burial. This dead body was freshly dead, covered, however incompletely, by a tarp beside the exit ramp where he had died. Just a pair of Gold Toe socks sticking out, crossed at an unnatural angle. I found out that he was thrown from his motorcycle, and perished, not in a blaze of glory, but in a heap, in front of a strip center, while shoppers bustled about their day.
I wondered, oddly, what his final thoughts were as the pavement came rushing up to meet him. Did he see his life flash before his eyes? Did he say anything?
I read an article on Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, ever the consummate diplomat, stating that his last words apparently were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” Some say it was in jest, as he was going under the anesthesia, others claim it perfectly capped his life of service and his disdain for the quagmire in which the US finds ourselves… but the controversy about Holbrooke’s final utterance made me curious as to what we think last words mean.
If we knew a sentence would be our last, what would we use it to say?
Some would tell their family members how much they loved them or would have said something to indicate who was on their mind while death was close at hand.
Bonaparte was rumored to have pronounced only “Josephine…” Charles II of England reportedly asked someone to take care of his mistress, “Don’t let poor Nelly (Nell Gwynne) starve.” von Goethe, the author of Faust, said to his daughter, “Come, my little one, and give me your hand.” President James K Polk told his wife, “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”
Others might say something ironic, humorous, or droll that summarizes their outlook on life and death.
In a recent NPR article, noted agnostic, Voltaire, was quoted as saying “Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies,” when asked to renounce Satan. Actor John Barrymore did not go quietly into the night, but said, “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.” A French grammarian, Domonique Bouhours, reportedly said, “I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct.”
Others speak their parting words as if nothing were different, as if life goes on…
One of my favorites was Bing Crosby, who said, “That was a great game of golf, fellas” before suffering a heart attack on the course, but the statement might be about life itself. Florenz Zigfeld, of Follies fame, emitted “Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!” before taking his final breath. Anna Pavlova, the prima ballerina, told her assistant and then the conductor “Get my swan costume ready… play that last measure softly.”
Still others might remark on how last words are last words, and thus somehow more important that the other hundreds of thousands or even millions of words we speak in our life.
Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, said, “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and … damn it – died in a hotel room.” Karl Marx’s housekeeper came in to record his final words, when he told her, “Go on, get out – last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.” Pancho Villa took a different approach to his final sentements, “Don’t let it end like this, tell them I said something.”
Famous last words are somehow important to those we leave behind. They give some measure of finality, closure, a family or cultural story for posterity. I think about Jesus’ final words – on the cross, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” from Luke, Matthew records it as “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me,” and John records that he said “It is finished.” These three accounts seem to be contradictory, as often happens with accounts of someone’s closing arguments. I’m not as interested in what Jesus’ final words on the cross were, as much as I am with Jesus’ final words while on Earth, spoken as a warning, a promise and a prophecy before he ascended into heaven.
Steven Wright once said, “I wish my first word was ‘quote’ so when I die, I could say ‘un-quote.” I think I might like something saucy like that. I should say, I’m hoping that what I type here is not my terminal word on the matter.