Monday, February 1, 2010

Famous Last Words

It occurred to me the other day how much pressure our society places on dying people. Families gather around to hear their last words, their last uttering, their last hopes and dreams.

In the book Death Comes for the Archbishop, author Willa Cather describes this moment with colorful anticipation:

" a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to and unimaginable scene. Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some light or shadow from beyond. The "Last Words" of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man and woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbors and kins-folk. These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go down the same road." (Page 170)

Since ancient days, it seems, we wait for those last words of our loved ones.

In my experience now with over 100 death experiences, not one person has uttered any "last words." I hate to bust anyone's bubble, but it's just never happened on my watch. Their last words were said way before they were in the hospital. And that gives me reason to pause.

I am realizing that the last words are the words spoken not by the dying one, but by the ones who loved, the ones who accompanied, the ones who shared the last moments. These are the family members, the survivors.

Their "last words" are often unrepeatable as they are so sacred. I can only hint at the kinds of last words that I have heard - and no words that I use will be sufficient. These words are said in fire, in whispers, and cloaked in grief or joy.

After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
- 1Kings 19: 12-14

In this moment, what are your famous last words?


  1. "in fire, in whispers, cloaked in grief" great imagery. I like this post. And I second the notion that the "famous last words" have been greatly romanticized by populat media or whatever.

    I may have heard a few last words from a dying person before, but I don't think anyone knew that they would be the last, and yes, most of the words spoken by surviving family is just to sacred to share or try and recreate.

    Thanks for this one.

  2. This post takes me to what turned out to be my mother's last words, but no one knew at the time that they would be her last. Her last sentence was, "Have fun, darling." (spoken to my older sister, who was on her way to a party) By the next day only one word came from her mouth, "Sing." And we did. We sang to her, and for her, and for ourselves, and for each other. I believe singing and praying were synonyms that day.

    I'm glad for the gift of remembering her last words.

    I recall a Mary Oliver poem that says that the Buddha's last words were: "Make of yourselves a light."

    I know these responses don't exactly line up with your prompt, but they are where your entry took my heart. Thank you!