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1747 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Dead But Not Buried: Last Words

by Skip Eisiminger

I. I have not told half of what I saw.
Marco Polo’s last words

Beside my mother’s hospital bed, Dad leaned in close to hear what might possibly be his wife’s last words.

“Umm,” Dad wondered aloud, “what did she say?”

“She said,” my sister answered, “‘I’ll wait for you in heaven.’”

For years, Dad liked to quote those promising words for family and friends, but there was more to the story. According to my sister, who was on the other side of Mother’s bed, the heaven reference was followed by a sharp injunction: “Butch, get your ears fixed!” However, as far as I know, the version of the story that culminated with “heaven” was never challenged in his presence.

Last words have an oversized importance, especially to those within the audible circumference of the dying speaker. Carefully chosen last words can make up for years of the wrong words or raw silence. Spoken over the telephone two thousand miles away, Dad’s last words to me were, “I love you,” and, of course, I treasure those words. I just wish he’d said them more often when he was well.

II. I have spent a lot of time searching through the Bible for loopholes.
W. C. Fields’s last words

The ability to respond to the terrible beauty of death with a comic line is an under-appreciated gift. Facing a firing squad, one condemned prisoner, when asked if he had a final request, said, “Why, yes—a bullet-proof vest.” I’m sure the line gained him some respect among his executioners, but his request was denied.

Often, I suspect that the comic exit line is accidental or unconscious. Climbing the stairs to the top of a hastily built gallows, another prisoner asked, “Is it safe?” Conscious or not, it evoked laughter, but I doubt if the terrified prisoner appreciated his sudden power.

Knowing how suspiciously polished some “famous last words” appear, Max Beerbohm, the English humorist, said to his nurse, “My last words are in the blue folder.” Like every good humorist, Beerbohm leaves us wanting more.

Finally, when Lord Palmerston’s doctor informed his patient that he was near death, Palmerston replied, “Die, my dear doctor, that’s the last thing I shall do.” Wittily and courageously, he denied death while accepting it.

III. Everyone has to die, but I’ve always thought an exception would be made in my case.
William Saroyan’s last words

The ego often looms large in protest, moments before it is to be extinguished. Examples of such swollen egos include:

  • Nero’s, “What an artist dies with me!”

  • Vespasian’s, “I am becoming a god!”

  • and Auguste Comte’s, “What an irreparable loss!”

Incidentally, when Nero sent assassins to kill his mother, she was not impressed with her son’s “artistry,” screaming, “Smite my womb!” No ego there.

IV. Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die, salute you.
Scores of anonymous Roman gladiators

Between 1990 and 2005, the state of Texas executed 322 prisoners. Before the fatal injection was administered, all were asked if they had any final words. Here’s a small sample with names deleted:

  • “[Killing fourteen people] was never nothing [sic] personal. It was just something I did to make a living.”

  • “Like I said from day one, I did not go in there and kill them, but I am no better than those who did.”

  • “Thirteen or fourteen years ago, I had a non-caring attitude. I’m sorry for shooting your son down at that robbery. I hope this brings you peace.”

  • “I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect. The last meal was really good.”

  • “Let’s do it, man. Lock and load!”

V. I go to see the Great Perhaps.
Last words attributed to Rabelais

Some of the most interesting last words have been framed as questions, and none is more famous than Jesus’ final words on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I’m not sure this son of an omnipotent god ever received a good answer to why such a gruesome death was necessary, but the question is all too human.

Though Louis XIV in his seventy-two years on the French throne seldom displayed an understanding of “the real world,” on his deathbed, he asked his family, “Why are you weeping? Did you imagine I was immortal?” Death, as the Sun King learned, has a way of rapidly introducing us to reality.

Lady Nancy Astor’s last question, “Am I dying, or is it my birthday?” is one theologians and philosophers have struggled with for centuries. Stay tuned; we’re still working on it.

Another unanswerable question was posed by the Canadian-British publisher, Lord Beaverbrook, “It is time for me to become an apprentice once more, and I have not settled in which direction.” The direction, if there is a direction, is not in a lord’s hands.

To my friends
My work is done
why wait?
George Eastman’s last words

Perhaps saddest of all are those whose final words question whether their life’s work was good enough. Leonardo da Vinci, whose Mona Lisa has long been considered the most sublime of portraits, died with these words, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” And the Japanese master Hokusai said, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.” The pitiful irony is that practically everyone who has seen his Under the Wave off Kanagawa [aka, “the Great Wave”] considers it masterful. In both artists’ cases, I suspect it was a drugged or demented brain, not an excess of humility, that offered these despairing opinions.

VII. T’is well.
George Washington’s last words

Dr. Benjamin Dunlap, who taught Victorian literature for many years at the University of South Carolina, was professionally active in several academic societies. After a motorcycle accident, he was taken, badly injured and unconscious, to the nearest hospital. With excellent care, however, he regained consciousness, sat weakly up, and said, “Please notify the William Morris Society.” Though Dunlap survived his accident and went on the become president of Wofford College, that story when it circulated reminded some of Socrates’ last words to his friend Crito, “We owe a cock to Aesculapius. Will you remember to pay the debt?”

The all-is-well, business-as-usual pose may be a denial of what is happening, but it’s understandable because it’s so instilled. P. T. Barnum wanted to know what his circus’s latest receipts were, and George V asked how the British Empire was faring.

Socrates’ stoic approach to death is still widely admired, as is ballerina Anna Pavlova’s unflinching request that her swan costume be readied once more for her “swan song.”

“The rest is silence,” as Hamlet said.

VIII. With my luck, I’ll think of something memorable as they’re bolting the lid on my casket, so I better say it now, “I never liked Henry James.”
The Wordspinner

Those who die thinking of others have my deepest admiration. Former US Vice President John C. Calhoun died saying, “The South! The South! God knows what will become of her.” Having helped to steer the Confederacy into the war and having seen the resulting devastation, his concerns are understandable and touching.

Even more admirable is Johann Winkelmann, the German art historian, who had barely hit the ground after being shot when he said, “Forgive my assailant.”

IX. Relax, this won’t hurt.
Hunter S. Thompson speaking to himself

Volumes of suicide notes have been compiled, and one overly simple but nevertheless convenient classification of these notes is the heroic and anti-heroic. One aristocratic anti-hero in the Age of Reason (and Buttons) wrote the following note before ending his life, “All this buttoning and unbuttoning.” It’s sad to think that, if Velcro had come along two centuries earlier, it might have saved this man’s life.

Perhaps the most selflessly heroic expression was uttered by Capt. Laurence Oates, who said: “I’m just going outside and may be some time.” Fearing a leg injury would jeopardize the Scott expedition to the South Pole, Oates surrendered quietly to the elements.

X. Some things, especially last words, are sui generis without a whiff of the cliché.
The Wordspinner

Here’s a miscellany of one-off farewells:

  • Crudest: After an unconditioned reflex, the Countess di Vercellis said, “A woman who can fart is not dead.”

  • Most defiant: "More weight!” spoken by accused warlock Giles Corey as he was being crushed in a yard outside the Salem prison.

  • Most misquoted: “Et tu, Brute!” Caesar’s line was probably spoken in Greek, not Latin.

  • Longest: If you and I had world enough and time....

  • Most poignant: “All my possessions for a moment of time,” attributed to Queen Elizabeth I.

  • Most premature assessment: “You sure can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President,” said Mrs. Connolly. “No, you can’t,” replied John F. Kennedy.

  • Most debated: Was it a record seventeen or eighteen whiskeys that killed Dylan Thomas?

  • Most ambivalent: “God bless. God damn.” James Thurber

  • Most touching spoken by an animal: “You be good. I love you,” said Alex the African grey parrot before going to sleep. “I love you too,” said his caretaker Irene Pepperberg. “You’ll be in tomorrow?” asked Alex. Who knew parrots could use the future interrogative?

  • Most richly enigmatic: “Rosebud,” spoken by “Citizen” Charles Foster Kane.

  • Most impertinent: “What? Would you execute the father of a family?” spoken by Frederic Moyse who’d murdered his son.

  • The most hypocritical: “...I die a Christian.” Casanova, the prototype of the modern libertine.

  • Most pedantic: “I am about to, or, I am going to die. Either expression may be used.” French grammarian Dominique Bouhours.

  • Most reassuring and best positioned: “It wasn’t bad—just went to sleep. Tell all I’ll see them on the other side. JR.” A coal miner’s last words scrawled on the back of his insurance policy following a cave-in.

  • Shortest and most innocent: “Papa?” Gen. George Patton

  • Most relentlessly pedagogical: “The first step in philosophy is incredulity.” Denis Diderot

  • Most honestly confessional: “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.” Benedict Arnold

  • Most abjectly apologetic: “Excuse me, sir. I did not mean to do it.” Marie Antoinette after accidentally stepping on the executioner’s foot.

  • Most cryptic: (... - 16/9 + 2/9 - 4/9 + 2/9 + 2/9 + 2/9 ...) A few fractions from Einstein’s deathbed calculations. [Isn’t this the same as -2 2/9?]*

*Webmaster’s Note: Or does this fragment of the equation actually equal -12/9; that is, -4/3 or -1.33333?

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury