Last words have long been a subject of fascination for several reasons. The person about to die is sometimes regarded as having special access to the mysteries of death and afterlife, as well as to spirit visitors such as angels or ancestors. There have been many observations of people close to death apparently seeing and talking with a visitor invisible to others. Often, though, the last words in these interactions are not audible or intelligible to others.
The last words of the influential philosopher Georg Hegel (1770–1831) were eagerly awaited because he was regarded as one of the people most likely to have penetrating insights to offer. Hegel proved a disappointment in that regard. Instead of addressing cosmic issues, he complained about the fact that so few people really understood his writings and even fewer understood him as an individual. The expectation that last words will provide insight and enlightenment seems to be more frequently fulfilled in literature, drama, and cinema than in real-life circumstances.
Another common belief is that the dying person will speak the truth about difficult matters either because there is nothing to lose by doing so or because these disclosures will dissolve a burden of stress and guilt. An example is the Ku Klux Klan member who confessed on his deathbed that he had been responsible for church bombings that took place almost forty years prior to his death.
A related expectation is that people on the verge of death will either affirm or alter their guiding beliefs and values. American patriot Nathan Hale's words, "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country" as he awaited execution by the British for espionage, is a well-known example of affirmation. Reports of atheists or agnostics embracing religious faith in their last hours are examples of exchanging one set of beliefs for another on their deathbed. Many of the conversion reports have been fallacious. Naturalist Charles Darwin, for example, was rumored to have disavowed his theory of evolution in favor of traditional religious faith. This widely disseminated report served the interests of those who opposed the penetration of science into religious belief. It was soon discovered, however, that the "witness" had never seen Darwin on his deathbed or at any time near the end of his life.
Still another belief is that people will die "in charader," saying words that do not necessarily have universal significance but that are consistent with their individual personalities. For example, an adult daughter recalls that she tucked her dying father into bed and kissed him on the forehead before leaving the room. While performing these simple actions she was reminded of how her father had so often done the same for her in childhood: "I was embarrassed when I heard myself say, 'Sleep tight,' but he smiled and said, 'Don't let the bedbugs bite!'" Those were the last words anybody heard from him. The daughter's interpretation was that her father was being himself and saying his farewell in a way that affirmed the lifelong bonds of love between them.
A person's last words may also be treasured by family and friends even if there is nothing remarkable in their substance—these words will be remembered because they were the last. An eighteenth century French socialite's last words differed from the aged father's but were consistent with her personality. Madame Martel de Fontaine had long celebrated the pleasures of romantic love. She declared to her bedside companions, "My consolation at this hour: I am sure that somewhere in the world, someone is making love."
Diversity of Last Words
Diversity of last words is illustrated by the statements given above. Within this diversity, however, there are many examples of people trying to come to terms with their hopes, fears, and doubts at the last moment. Madame Martel de Fontaine celebrated the pleasures of romantic love that would continue to flourish although no longer for her. Today this would be considered a form of symbolic immortality that might serve to moderate the sorrow of separating from one's life on the earth. Voltaire, one of Madame de Fontaine's intimate friends, was on his deathbed in 1778 when flames flared up from the nearby oil lamp. Responding with his quick wit, the famed author and dramatist exclaimed, "What—the flames already?" Not a religious person, Voltaire deftly acknowledged the possibility of damnation while at the same time offering himself the saving grace of humor.
Increase Mather and his son Cotton were among the most illustrious people of Colonial New England. The father's passionate sermons affirmed Christian faith and inspired his congregation through difficult times. He was a pillar of strength and belief. When death was close, however, Mather did not express the same joyful anticipation he had demonstrated in the pulpit. Cotton saw his father suffer in " Fear and Trembling, lest he be Deceived at the Last " (Standard 1977, pp. 79–80). He was assailed by doubts: Despite all his good intentions and good works, perhaps he had allowed himself somehow to be deceived by the devil and was therefore on the verge of damnation rather than salvation. Mather's anxious final words seem to be at odds with his many public statements, but he doubted only his own personal fate, not his basic Christian faith. "Soul searching" is a familiar phrase that is especially apt for people who are keenly aware of their impending death and have issues of faith and doubt, and hope and fear, to resolve.
Most discussions of last words assume a mental state of clarity near the time of death. Dutch Schultz was one of the most vicious gangsters during the years when bootlegging liquor was a highly profitable criminal enterprise—even other professional gangsters considered him to be excessively wild and dangerous. Dying of bullet wounds, Schultz did not relate directly to his impending death but instead relived a variety of scenes in which he acted out bits of his everyday personality. His last words reflected this mental fragmentation: "Shut up, you got a big mouth! Henry, Max, come over here . . . French Canadian bean soup ... I want to pay. Let them leave me alone." Schultz might have been struggling for resolution in his final moments, but the stresses and dysfunctions associated with the dying process can prevent the expression of coherent thoughts.
The distinction between coherent and incoherent statements is sometimes blurred, however. A person close to death might speak in a coded or symbolic manner, when meaning remains a matter of conjecture. One woman, for example, spoke of her cruise to Bermuda: "I have the tickets here some place, the tickets." She had been aware of her impending death, but also had occasionally surprised visitors with her talk of going on a long cruise. Were her last words confused, evasive—or a subtle way of speaking about her departure? An aged resident in a long-term care facility suddenly wanted to tell everybody about the need to dig an eighth grave. He died unexpectedly and only later was it discovered that he had been the only survivor among eight siblings. His seemingly confused statement now seemed to represent a sense of returning to the family circle and completing their stay on the earth.
The Importance of Last Words
The perceived significance of last words depends as much on cultural expectations as it does on individual circumstances. The final moment may be seen as that instant in which life and death both exercise their claims and, therefore, a parting message can have unique value. There is a tradition within Buddhist and Hindu belief systems in which a person approaching death is expected to offer a meaningful farewell statement. This tradition has been especially compelling for Zen masters whose students and friends await the final words of wisdom. For more than a thousand years it has been customary that Zen masters spontaneously compose and recite a poem with their last breath. These brief poems are seldom pious or sentimental, nor do they promise a heavenly reward. Most often these poems reflect on dying as part of nature's mysterious transformations. It is not unusual for the parting message to be flavored with tart humor and cautions against taking any system of belief too seriously. The idea of acceptance—both of life and death—is frequently paramount. For example, Zen scholar Sushila Blackman tells of a Zen master who was sitting in meditation with his students when he immediately said:
I am at one with this and only this.
You, my disciples,
Uphold it firmly.
Now I can breathe my last.
And he did.
(Blackman 1997, p. 93)
In Western culture the most fervent attention to last words has occurred within the tradition of deathbed salvation scenes. Here was the final opportunity to repent sins and affirm faith. It was a frightening prospect to die without the opportunity to give confession. By the same token, priests felt they had to make every possible effort to be with the dying person, even if it were a heretic, criminal, or inarticulate wretch. Governmental authorities also took this obligation seriously. In eighteenth century France, for example, physicians were required by law to see that a confessor was summoned when the patient was near death.
Although concern for the fate of the dying person's soul was paramount, there were other reasons for encouraging a dialogue. Perhaps the dying person had wronged somebody years ago and now could express regrets and ask for forgiveness. Similarly, perhaps the dying person could let go of his or her own anger and forgive somebody for a past injustice or disappointment.
Last words have also proved significant outside of religious considerations. Some people have waited until the last moment to reveal where the hidden financial assets can be found. Many others have shared personal memories with family or intimate friends. With his frail breath, an aged and emaciated man sang a favorite song along with his wife, strong enough only to mouth the words. A woman, exhausted after coping with her long illness, ordered her faithful niece to return to her own family: "They need you, too. Your life is with your own children." She lived another few days but had nothing more to say.
The opportunity for saying "goodbye" in one way or another is not available to all dying people. Making such communications difficult or impossible are circumstances such as social isolation, where the dying person is alone or seen only occasionally and by people who are not inclined to listen. Other situations that can make "goodbye" difficult include the individual's own communicational and/or cognitive deficits; pain that absorbs energy and attention, undermining the opportunity to interact; devices that interfere with communication (e.g., intubation); or an individual's drug-induced stupor or confusion.
These barriers to end-of-life communication are sometimes the result of inadequate management procedures (i.e., over or under medication or hospital staff who are not given enough time to be with their patients). There are no reliable data on the number of people who have a companion at the time of death and, therefore, somebody who might listen to the last words.
It is clear that last words can be of great importance to the person whose life will soon end. Suicide notes, for example, are often the final communication from a despondent and desperate person. Soldiers in Hitler's Sixth Army, abandoned deep in Russia and under punishing attack, knew that they were going to die soon as they wrote their Last Letters From Stalingrad (1961). These were messages of consolation to the wives, children, and parents whom they knew they would never see again. Both Confederate and Union soldiers in the U.S. Civil War also thought carefully about what they wrote in letters, as any could be their last.
Interest in last words can have positive and negative implications—positive because it might encourage continued contact with dying people, and negative because of an overemphasis on the final communication rather than sharing in the entire process.
Blackman, Sushila, ed. Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die: Death Strories of Tibetan, Hindu, and Zen Masters. New York: Weatherhill, 1997.
Boller, Paul F., Jr., and John George. They Never Said It. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Enright, D. J., ed. The Oxford Book of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Kastenbaum, Robert. "Last Words." The Monist: An International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical Inquiry 76 (1993):270–290.
Lockyer, Herbert. Last Words of Saints and Sinners. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1969.
Marshall, S. L. A., ed. Last Letters from Stalingrad. New York: The New American Library, 1961.
McManners, John. Death and the Enlightenment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.