Reading the dying words of famous people leads me to wonder what my own last words will be.
I suppose we remain ourselves even in the dying state, which is a bit unnerving and makes me hope my last words won’t be grumpy. I can only rely on the omnipresence of divine grace.
Since I don’t eat meat, it is unlikely that I will ask, like the poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, “Do you think it was the sausage?” (Vous pensez que c’était la saucisse?) [Other sources report a more inspiring, though perhaps a bit brusque, farewell from Claudel: “Leave me alone; I'm not afraid” (Qu'on me laisse tranquille, je n'ai pas peur).]
In her hilarious book on punctuation (did you know that punctuation could be hilarious?) entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss offers us another example:
“I have been told that the dying words of one famous 20th-century writer were, ‘I should have used fewer semicolons’ — and although I have spent months fruitlessly trying to track down the chap responsible, I believe it none the less. If it turns out that no one actually did say this on their deathbed, I shall certainly save it up for my own” (p. 127).
One rather disturbing example of words from a deathbed (though hopefully they were not the very last words) comes from Dr. James L. Hallenbeck’s book, Palliative Care Perspectives. Speaking of pre-death visions (which it turns out are not rare), Dr. Hallenbeck writes that patients most commonly see deceased relatives. He says that the next most frequent visitors, in his experience, are “guardian beings, angels and others. . . . Often, they will communicate to the patient that their time (to die, to cross-over) has not yet come or some similar message. I have noticed no correlation between the appearance of such beings and religiosity in patients.” Such visitors are usually welcomed, he writes, though one committed atheist patient of his was an exception. “When angels appeared in his room, he screamed, ‘Get out of here, there is no God!’” (p. 145).
If you are ready for something a bit more uplifting, continue reading:
Jaroslav Pelikan, renowned scholar of Christian history, is reported to have said not long before his death in 2006, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”
Janet Erskine Stuart, who was a beloved Superior General of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, died in 1914. Among her last words are these:
How lovely . . . lovely. . . . What a change! . . . Oh, how He loves me! Oh, how He longs for me !
If you only knew… if you only knew… He is so bright… so beautiful… so very beautiful. My God!
Life and Letters of Janet Erskine Stuart
Last Words of Jesus
The four gospels give us seven last words of Jesus from the cross. One of these is, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), drawn from Psalm 31. Echoing Jesus, this word of trust is prayed every evening during the church’s Night Prayer, or Compline, as a response to the scripture reading.
“Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” we pray.
This would be a wonderful “last word” as one is dying, but in case we don’t have the presence of mind to call it up at that last moment, it wouldn’t hurt to begin practicing it now. In this way we may learn it “by heart”—a wonderful expression as it implies more than memory—so that our spirit may more and more become one with the surrendered spirit of Christ. Each day or each night we make this offering of our spirit, and join with Jesus in his stance of prayerful trust in the God who opens the divine and loving arms to us.
Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.
- – - – -