Saturday, March 23, 2013


My favorite last words are attributed to our 6th President, John Quincy Adams. As he lay dying his assembled family heard him remark, "This is the last of earth. I am content." That is a fitting lid on a beautiful vessel. A close second for me is Robert E. Lee's "Strike the tent," which is a biblical reference to 2 Corinthians 5:4. That's far better than Pancho Villa's "Don't let it end like this! Tell them I said something," Benito Mussolini's, "But, but, Mister Colonel...," or even that famous final utterance of Julius Caesar, "Et tu Brute?" Those men would have certainly mustered something more composed if death had not arrived for them as violently and unexpectedly as it did.

Last words are fascinating because they are so revealing and vulnerable. Circumstances typically dictate that they be brief so a careful and economical use of language is called for which must be difficult to call up in one's final moments. As the things of earth grow strangely dim and, frankly, irrelevant one's last words require the summoning of a person's remaining vitality to make one final attempt at explaining oneself, expressing feeling, imparting wisdom, cracking a joke, or providing some kind of summary of their days under the sun. I suspect that as people lay dying they wrestle with questions of how they will be remembered and I can only imagine that they rehearse what they would like to say in their final moments. Such prepared statements are only slightly less interesting than those that come in an unexpected moment. There's nothing more clutch than nailing your last words.

Some last words simply speak to the cause of death such as Amelia Earhart's "I'm running low on gas," or Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "I have a terrific headache." (He died of a cerebral hemmorhage.) Others depict the mysterious misfirings of synapses as awareness takes one last tour of the facility like Henry David Thoreau's "Moose...Indian..." Some are very funny like Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels, who was asked as he lay dying if he had any final words of wisdom. He replied, "Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub." Convicted criminal James W. Rodgers was asked for his final request as he stood before a firing squad in 1960. His reply, "Why yes, a bulletproof vest." More often last words are tragic like Civil War General John Sedgwick's "Nonsense, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..." or Terry Alan Kath's infamous "Don't worry. It's not loaded." Lawrence Oates who was part of the ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1912 feared that his injuries were slowing down his comrades. His last words were recorded as "I am just going outside and may be some time," before leaving their tent and intentionally wandering off in a blizzard. Sometimes last words reveal an awareness of the moment at which life begins slipping away such as Al Jolson's "This is it. I'm going. I'm going," or the boxer Max Baer's, "Oh God, here I go..." One has to wonder what that feels like. How did they know? I appreciate the poetry of Emily Dickinson's "...the fog is rising," the simplicty of Lord Byron's "Goodnight," the evocative imagery of O. Henry's "Turn up the lights. I don't want to go home in the dark," the honesty of Henry Ward Beecher's "Now comes the mystery," and the steeliness of Nathan Hale before his executioners, "My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country."

When I find myself at the intersection of this life and the next I hope I have sufficient wits about me to say something fitting, but if not then I take comfort in knowing that it won't matter on the other side anyway. After all, this isn't truly the land of the living as we have often heard it described. This is the land of the dying, and any last words we speak will die with those who hear them. I would like my last words to point those who remain to life unending in Jesus. That would be the best use of my final moments, but why wait until then. Such would be a worthy way to make use of all of my days, and today. One's last words should transition seemlessly into praise on the other side.

In case I'm not able to muster anything worthy when my name is called please read the following at my memorial service.

"A pilgrim's portion, food and raiment and contentment therewith- the mansion which fortune has provided or the cabin which penury has reared- each alike counted a hospice where one lodges as 'a pilgrim and stranger in the earth,' and the grave a narrow inn whose windows look toward the sunrising, where the sojourner sleeps till break of day." A.J. Gordon

"And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." 1 Peter 5:4


abigail said...

This post and the one above it are perfect examples of why I greatly enjoy your blog. This post provokes thought and is full of fascinating information I never would have unearthed on my own. The one above it is super stab wound, ha,ha,ha...

Joshua Tate said...

Thanks for sayng so, Abigail! I'm blushing.

The Brunetts said...

The ever-flamboyant Oscar Wilde said, "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do!"

I first became interested in last words after reading John Green's novel, Looking for Alaska. Like you, I am FASCINATED by them.

There's actually an amazing anthology of last words, but it's super-expensive.