Famous Last Words

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These are the last words of David: The oracle of David son of Jesse, the oracle of the man exalted by the Most High, the man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs. (2 Samuel 23:1)

Maybe it’s the movies, but I’ve always wanted to say something really cool just before I die. (I’ve heard it’s much harder shortly after.) There you are, about to slip over the brink, and you utter words that will be remembered forever. Not everybody is so lucky. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to make a speech before you croak, and sometimes you blow the opportunity by saying something not so great.

President John Quincy Adams, for example, is reported to have said, “This is the last of earth! I am content.” Simple and stately. The actor John Barrymore was in true form: “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.” Ludwig van Beethoven had a more darkly humorous approach; he declared, “Friends applaud, the comedy is finished.” Poet Emily Dickinson was, of course, poetic: “I must go in, the fog is rising.” And ballerina Anna Pavlova brought her death into delightful perspective: “Get my swan costume ready.”

Some last words are memorable but not all that great. Humphrey Bogart remarked, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” Composer Frederic Chopin wasn’t very—well, very composed, crying out, “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.” Uh, yeah. Douglas Fairbanks gets the award for mortal irony: “I’ve never felt better.” Physicist Richard Feynman was frank: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.” Eugene O’Neill was frustrated with the lame staging of his death: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room – and God damn it – died in a hotel room.” My personal favorite is from Dominique Bouhours, a French grammarian, who remarked helpfully, “I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct.” Now that’s my kind of departure.

King David most likely had it easy when it came to last words. He probably had a hundred scribes at his bedside taking down his every gasp and murmur. Not only that, they probably revised anything that was less than kingly. So “I have to pee” became “The sun rises, a morning without clouds” or something like that. It’s not likely he had to worry about what posterity would think of him since he was pretty much guaranteed cult status by virtue of the psalms alone. The Bathsheba incident didn’t hurt him either.

I’m not taking any chances. I haven’t written any psalms or committed adultery yet. So I’ve been working on a selection of last words which I’ve organized into categories. I’ve got possibilities for dying peacefully in old age. I’ve got options for accidents, disease, war, and even a couple for a showdown with the devil himself. Not only that, I’ve included suggested background music to make my death scene more dramatic. I’d share some of them with you, but that would defeat the purpose. Last words have to be saved for last.

Well, here’s one I eliminated as a possibility, so I guess it’d be okay to make it public. This came under the also trashed category “Dying as a Head of State” which seemed increasingly unlikely once I hit my 50th birthday. With Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor playing in the background, I whisper, clearly and calmly, to the 150 or so weeping, bikini clad women who surround my divan, “Bring me a piece of warm cherry pie.” I pause as one of them turns to carry out my request, then add commandingly: “Remember the à la mode.” Like I said, I bagged the whole scenario.

Anyway, I think it’s a good idea to be ready. We’re all going to die some day and it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead. Some people have even videotaped their last words to be played back at the funeral, but that seems a bit cheesy to me. Last words are supposed to be heard before you die, not after. I guess I’m old fashioned that way.

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