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Fascination with final words has no end

The Baltimore Sun

Shakespeare, a guy who knew a thing or two about reeling in an audience, wrote, "The tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony." Four hundred years later, last words are apparently no less compelling.

Millions of people tuned into a dying professor's last lecture on YouTube, and millions more bought the book based on it. Tuesdays With Morrie, similarly stocked with deathbed life lessons, became a publishing phenomenon a few years back. And dozens of anthologies, both online and in print, compile final utterances of the famous and infamous.

What is the fascination with last words? After a lifetime of chatter, gossip, banal observations, witty proclamations, blessings, curses and comments on the weather, why do we insist on catching a person's closing syllables?

Michael C. Kearl, a sociology professor at Trinity University who has amassed a stunning collection of material about the culture of dying, thinks we're looking for reassurances about death, reasons to live, hope for our personal legacies and rousing, inspiring all-American endings.

"People need the belief that the conclusion of their existence is a consummation as opposed to a mere cessation," he says. "There's something about a good ending, right? A piece of music can be only so-so, but, boy, if it's got the big bang at the end, you remember it."

In the last lecture video, a speech people have praised as amazing and inspiring to life-changing, Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, who has been told that pancreatic cancer will kill him in a matter of months, addresses his students and colleagues. Lanky and handsome, the 47-year-old married father of three speaks blithely and earnestly, not about his disease, but about childhood dreams and how he's managed to achieve a good number of them.

Pausch, who grew up in Columbia and slips on an Oakland Mills letterman jacket for a moment during the talk, presents no advice that people haven't heard before in the 76-minute lecture or resulting book. He offers truisms: Work hard. Help others. Be prepared. Find the good in everyone. Don't give up.

"If this were a sermon some preacher were giving on a regular Sunday - work hard and this and that - no one would care," says Matthew Sigurd Hedstrom, a fellow at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. "It's that this man is dying."

Hedstrom, who specializes in popular religion and American culture, says he believes that people are drawn to material like The Last Lecture because it offers a spiritual - not a religious - way to grapple with mortality.

"Here's a way to deal with the big questions without the vocabulary of religion," he says. "These publications are an effort to get at the people who would never darken the door of a church. At Barnes & Noble, you can get your spiritual sustenance."

For ages, people have believed that the dying have insight, Kearl says, and that in someone's final moments, they brush aside conversational filler and get right to the revelations.

James Plath, an English professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, says people hope that those who inspired us in their lifetimes will also say something worthwhile as they face death. He's fond of writer Gertrude Stein's final bon mot: "What is the answer?" she asked. Getting no reply, she quipped, "In that case, what is the question?"

"We love last words because they illustrate how people face the ultimate mystery and the ultimate reality," Plath says. "Do they go, as Stein did, with a wry last joke, or as Dylan Thomas wrote, not so gently into that good night?"

Hedstrom and Kearl suspect baby boomers are behind the mass-market obsession with last words. With the first of the nation's boomers eligible for Social Security this year, they're feeling mortal.

"We're trying to make sense of our biographies. We just don't know what our personal stories mean. Is my existence cashing in on what I earn at the mall and recycling my waste?" Kearl says. "We're looking for recipes, and we're looking for role models."

Furthermore, Kearl thinks people have forgotten how to do dying.

Centuries ago, people knew death because it was a public affair. Dying folks were laid out in their downstairs parlors so that family, neighbors and friends could say goodbye. Now people die in rest homes, isolated and often medically sustained in ways that leave them unable to communicate.

He thinks we now turn to books and quotes to fill that void.

But that material we make so much of includes the clever, the mundane and the incoherent.

The prophet Nostradamus sagely predicted, "Tomorrow I shall no longer be here."

Socrates, whose life overflowed with wisdom, in death only managed, "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt?"

And Karl Marx, when asked on his deathbed by his housekeeper if he had anything to say, groused in reply: "Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!"

Fictional last words are just as memorialized.

In Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, a character who swaps places with a man about to be executed says: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

How many times have people quoted Shakespeare's stabbed Caesar, rasping, "Et tu, Brute?"

And of course, in Citizen Kane, a movie many critics consider the best ever made, the foundation of the entire plot is the mystery behind a magnate's final word: Rosebud.

Sometimes, when someone dies unexpectedly or instantly, people rewind their ultimate moments searching for what can become, by default, the official last words.

For instance, in an address the day before he was killed, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. ... I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

While researching Famous Last Words: Apt Observations, Pleas, Curses, Benedictions, Sour Notes, Bons Mots, and Insights from People on the Brink of Departure, Alan Bisbort discovered that in a lot of cases, quotes attributed to dying legends are often something less than authentic.

For instance, Benito Mussolini supposedly egged his captors on, saying, "Shoot me in the chest." More likely, Bisbort says, the Italian dictator died cowering and begging for his life.

On the other hand, the revolutionary Che Guevara, who Bisbort says "walked the walk all the way to the grave," said, "Shoot you coward, you're going to kill a man."

Bisbort, a Harford Advocate columnist, thinks people turn to last words, inflated or unadulterated, for answers - anything to solve "the riddle of existence." And in the doing, he thinks we infuse these final statements with more meaning than they would normally carry.

"I envy the people that are able to find profundities that inspire them in their lives though stuff like this," he says. "I guess I'm not one of those people."


Last words


Circus founder P.T. Barnum: "How were the circus receipts today at Madison Square Garden?"

Composer Leonard Bernstein: "What's this?"

John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln: "Tell mother, tell mother, I died for my country. ... useless ... useless ..."

Writer Anton Chekhov: "It's been a long time since I've had champagne."

Charles Darwin: "I am not the least afraid to die."

American spy Nathan Hale: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Counterculture icon Timothy Leary: "Why not? Why not? Why not? Why not? Yeah."

Pablo Picasso: "Drink to me!"

Babe Ruth: "I'm going over the valley."

George Washington: " 'Tis well."

Oscar Wilde: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I go."


Captain Ahab in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Moby Dick: "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee ... while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"

Anna in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Where am I? What am I doing? What for? ... Lord, forgive me all."

Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "The horror! The horror!"

Shakespeare's Richard III: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse."

Wicked Witch of the West in the film, The Wizard of Oz: "Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness."

[From the Web site Last Words and other sources]

A list of famous last words published in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly attributed the authorship of Moby-Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel was written by Herman Melville.The Sun regrets the error.
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