When you hear the term, “famous last words,” what comes to mind? Recently during the NCAA basketball tournament, a player brashly announced his team would defeat a much-higher seeded opponent in an early round. Unfortunately, the athlete had his worst game of the season and his team suffered a crushing defeat. Extract brashness. Insert humiliation. Eat words.
Last words famously uttered by people in the most literal sense are even more interesting. Revered science-fiction writer H. G. Wells is reputed to have said, “Go away…I’m all right.” Well, maybe not. George Washington, the first U.S. President, was a bit more definitive with his final words: “It is well, I die hard, but I’m not afraid to go.
Actor James Dean, shortly before his fatal car crash, presaged his demise when he said, "My fun days are over." More certain of her own end, French queen Marie Antoinette kept her manners even on her way to the guillotine. After accidentally stepping on the foot of her executioner, she reputedly said, “Pardon me, sir. I did not do it on purpose.”
What do you think your own "famous last
words" might be some day?
One of my favorites came from Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the Mexican revolutionary of the early 1900s. On his deathbed Villa told those around him, "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something important." We can appreciate such sentiments.
You’d think writers would be especially good at coming up with famous last words. Poet Emily Dickinson, in her last breath, offered this provocative observation: “…the fog is rising.” Another celebrated poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, after her husband, Robert Browning, asked how she felt, replied, “Beautiful.”
Enlightenment writer and philosopher, Voltaire, is reputed to have sustained antagonism toward religious dogma to the very end. When asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he supposedly responded, “Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”
Author O. Henry, borrowing lyrics of a popular song, stated, "Turn up the lights, I don't want to go home in the dark." Damon Runyon had this poignant comment: "You can keep the things of bronze and stone and give me one man to remember me just once a year."
Perhaps also wishing to be remembered, artist Pablo Picasso said, “Drink to me.”
Karl Marx, the Prussian-German philosopher and socialist, apparently felt nothing was left to say: "Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."
I offer these not to seem morbid, but simply as a reminder that, ready or not, one day every one of us will have the “opportunity” to express our last words – regardless of whether they become famous or not. It seems to me the words we utter as we die are often a reflection of how we’ve lived. The thoughts and values that have bubbled inside of us might just spill out at the last.
There are no better examples, in my opinion, than what we find in the Bible. Hanging from the cross, Jesus mustered up enough breath to proclaim, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His mission had been accomplished; the debt for mankind had been paid.
Then the apostle Paul, writing to his young protégé Timothy while sitting in prison awaiting execution, declared, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Even though it may be many years from now, what do you think your last words will be? Better yet, what would you like them to be? It’s never too soon to start preparing.
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, a former newspaper editor and magazine editor. He is presently vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a non-profit focused on mentoring and coaching business and professional leaders. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” “Business at Its Best,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also posts regularly on two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com.)