Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Famous Last Words

I have long envied people who manage to say something really smart and quotable seconds before their dying breath. To have the perseverance to even bother to say anything when you realize the big Game Over has arrived is a bit amazing when you think about it. Some of the quotes are good enough to make one wonder if the phrases have not been planned ahead of time, in particular if death is long in coming. Some cases even arouse suspicion that the quote has been developed using the support of those who assisted the famous person while still kicking, writing speeches and so on. If the super-organised quote is attributed to a politician this assistant would be a spin doctor, standing next to his medical counterpart, the former brainstorming out loud and the latter taking the soon to be deceased individuals pulse. This rather harmless conspiracy theory will be put to the test when Letterman and Leno pass away, these men have all the writers they need at their fingertips and must surely have asked them to spend an hour or two churning out remarkable or memorable words. I know I would if places were traded.

Having once spent a few hours reading through every quote in a book titled “The 1000 best Quotes of all time” I recall being flabbergasted at how little man has really managed to say in the form of prolific statements over the years, less than a tenth of the quotes were worth printing and if Oscar Wilde’s numerous contributions were removed this number would have fallen considerably. Although an impressive amount of quotations were attributes to him, his last words did not make the cut. They certainly merited being included: “These curtains are killing me, one of us has got to go.”

One of my long time favourite deathbed quotes was that of Charlie Chaplin who supposedly replied to the attending priest’s ritualistic words: “May the Lord have Mercy on your soul...” by saying: “Why not? It belongs to him.” However like many of the things one admires, when scrutinised they turn out to be an illusion. I did a quick verification of the authenticity of this quote and it turned out Chaplin died in his sleep and these are the dying words of someone else – Henri Verdoux, the main character of the movie Monsieur Verdoux from 1947 starring Charlie Chaplin. Too bad. The comedic retort has been removed from my personal list of favourite deathbed quotes.

Soon after realising this I was tempted to check out another favourite, but as it has a special place in my heart I decided not to, sometimes it is better to be under an illusion if harmless. The final words in question are those of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa uttered after he had been mortally wounded by unknown assassins: “Tell them I said something.” I also refrain from looking up Voltaire’s dying words for fear that they are fictional. Like the Chaplin quote, they a retort to an attending priest, this one asking Voltaire to renounce Satan to which he replied: “This is no time for making new enemies.” Just brilliant.

Priests administering last rites seem too have been an inspiration for a lot of the deathbed quotes I like, probably because their presence under such circumstances is to be expected, they often have the ringside seat, their ear in close proximity to the cracked lips of the person soon passing. Duke Ramón María Narváez y Campos, Spanish statesman was one, his attending priest asked him solemnly to forgive his enemies to which Ramón replied just before passing away: “I have none so no need. I have had them all shot.”

A number of last words are attributed to the settlers of Iceland through the Sagas. Some are eloquent, poems really and not easily translated. I will however include one I find a bit funny, attributed to an unnamed member of a posse sent to kill Gunnar Hámundarson in Njálssaga. The man is sent to Gunnar’s door to find out if he is home but unbeknownst to him Gunnar becomes aware of his approach and manages to stick his sword out by opening the door an inch and stabbing the would-be assassin fatally. The mortally wounded man staggers back to his group and is asked: “Was Gunnar home?” His reply? “This I do not know but I did notice that his sword is present.” He then fell down dead.

Despite the truth of actor Edmund Gwenn’s last words: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” I would recommend to those that wish to make a long lasting deathbed comment, to go with funny rather than poetic. These seem to be remembered with more ease and there are a lot fewer quotes out there that deal with wisdom or peace of mind. However I cannot leave the subject without mentioning two such examples: Theodore Roosevelt: "Put out the light." And René Descartes: “My soul, thou has long been held captive; the hour has now come for thee to quit thy prison, to leave the trammels of this body; suffer then, this separation with joy and courage.” A bit longwinded but nevertheless it surpasses by leaps and bound those of General John Sedgwick who died in battle during the US Civil War: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist..."

I have yet to come up with what I would like my last words to be, but hope I still have time to figure it out without having to rush against a fast approaching deadline. It's a bit unfortunate that I will not have a priest to bounce off of but I'll just have to make do without a pious sidekick. The first step is to realize what I absolutely don’t want to say and this bit has been accomplished, I think everyone can agree with me in not wanting their deathbed or last words to be: “Oh God, it hurts!” or: “Look over there! A crocodile!”

Finally, in the case I don’t find the time to develop something immortal then I would happily settle for: “Zzzzzzz...”

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. My grandfather's last words, spoken about an hour before he died, were simple and profoundly true.

    "They'll be no more crying now. I'm just doing what I was born for."


  2. What a great post. Who knows what I'll say... I'll probably look up at the person and say, 'Finally, I'm speechless.'


  3. I plan to pre-record my last words. Now I just need to decide what they'll be.

    Gertrude Stein's (supposedly) are great. As the great lady faded, her companion, Alice B. Toklas, clutched her hand and implored, "What is the answer, Gertrude? What is the answer?"

    Stein is supposed to have replied, "What was the question, Alice?"

  4. Great post. I loved it!
    By the way, I know who you are.
    But I wonder who else does.
    Sign the posts!

    I always thought Wilde said, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."
    I'm not sure which one I like better.
    As to exit lines that reek of preparation, the one that sticks in my head is Goethe's.
    He's reputed to have said "Licht, mehr licht". (Light. More light.)
    He could, of course, been speaking literally.
    (Maybe it was dark in the room and he wanted to have a last look around.)
    But I always thought he was striving for the metaphysical.
    And, in that case, I don't buy it.
    On the other hand, with all of this recent stuff about near death experiences, and the moribund moving toward the light, who knows?

  5. Thanks for your contributions - your grandfather's word Beth deserve a place in the quote book, no surprise to me since you must have your gift of words from somewhere. Yours will too Ann but being last words there is no rush, if you get my drift. Gertrude Stein's are indeed great as they conjur up an image of an emotional crying friend behaving ridiculously and the relaxed thinker getting bored with all the drama. Love it.

    Regarding Oscar Wilde there are two versions about, the one with the wallpaper and then the curtains. I do not know which is the true version, again afraid of finding out there is no merit to either i have purposely left any research into the matter be.

    To add one more story that I left out when writing the blog for fear of being too longwinded, there is one contributed to Þórir Jökull Steinfinnsson from Sturlungasaga who was captured and executed following a battle where he fought on the losing side. Being a poet he had prepared for his dying moments but for some reason he probably assumed he would drown and the poem he loudly proclamed from the chopping block regarded the harshness of the sea. It is believed that in his agitation he was unable to amend the verse he had so carefully prepared, particularly in light of the fact that nothing in Icelandic rhymes with axe.


  6. Truly wonderful post. But it led me to ponder what to say when my poignant moment arrives, and on to worry that no matter what I might come up with one size may not fit all (occasions). Just look at poor Steinfinnsson from Sturlungasaga (no umlaut on my keyboard so no first name) who saw all his planning get the axe.

    Oh well, until something truly inspirational comes to mind (and here's hoping there's still a mind there at that special moment it's needed) I'll try to follow "The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson" observation of Mark Twain: "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."

  7. Tim, I'm afraid that if I prerecorded what I intended as my last words, my real last words would be: "Where's the erase button on this thing?"

    Yrsa, I have long had a theory that quotations gravitate like moths to a few luminaries who get credit for them whether they are the real authors of the quotations or not. In English, those quote magnets are Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Yogi Berra. Berra, a great baseball player with the New York Yankees, is even said to have said: "I never said most of the things I said."

    Sturlungasaga? Snorri Sturlsson himself met an inveresting and violent death, I think. I don't know what his last words were, though. Perhaps: "Do you know who I am?"
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  8. My favourite wasn't quoted on a deathbed, but on a gravestone. British comic Spike Milligan: 'I told you I was ill.'

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.