Getting in the Last Words

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There is an old joke that when your friends are discussing a serious topic, you interject the statement, “It’s just like my uncle said on his death bed” [pause for dramatic effect] “aaaggggghhhh.” (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

I’ve wondered how true that really is. Despite our fascination with a person’s last words, are most people able to form coherent and brilliant thoughts when their body is shutting down?

Some are, some aren’t. We have indeed recorded some interesting last words. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, let’s look at famous last words.

Peaceful Passings

John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, spoke beautifully at his death: “This is the last of earth! I am content.”

One’s heart can stop before all consciousness is lost. Thus, Joseph Henry Green, British surgeon, simply noted after checking his own pulse, “Stopped.”

Luciano Pavarotti was one of the most successful operatic tenors in history. His last words were spoken to his manager: “I believe that a life lived for music is an existence spent wonderfully, and this is what I have dedicated my life to.”

J. Frank Baum brought us the magical land of Oz, with Dorothy and her fanciful friends. He whispered to his wife just before his death, “Now I can cross the shifting sands.”

Henry Ward Beecher was a prominent evangelist and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon his death, he said, “Now comes the mystery.”

Fearless Farewells

Nathan Hale was caught for intelligence-gathering and executed by the British government during the American Revolutionary War. He spoke those well-known words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Hans Scholl and five other young adults formed the White Rose resistance movement against the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany. Arrested by the Gestapo with his sister and a friend for passing out leaflets, he was executed in 1942 and his last words were: “Long live freedom!”

Todd Beamer led a group of United Flight 93 passengers to take back the plane slated by al-Qaeda terrorists to crash into the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001. The last words heard from him were simply, “Let’s roll.”

Defiant Departures

Ethan Allen, often thought of as a furniture brand was actually a general in the American revolution. When told “the angels are waiting for you,” he responded, “Waiting are they? Waiting are they? Well — let ’em wait.”

John Barrymore’s acting career spanned the stage, silent films, and talkies. His last words were “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”

Gaius Caligula was one of the Roman emperors referred to as “Julius Caesar.” He was stabbed to death by his own guards.  Oddly enough, he proclaimed before his death, “I am still alive!”

John Sedgwick was a Union Army general in the Civil War. Facing confederate snipers, his last words were “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” . . . but they could.

Ironic Exits

J. M. Barrie was most famously the author of Peter Pan. His last words were “I can’t sleep.” Then he did.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., another acting star in the early years of film, said, “Never felt better.”

Marie Antoinette, ousted Queen of France, accidentally stepped on the toe of her executioner. She said, “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.” (“Forgive me, sir.”) Then he killed her.

H. G. Wells is known for such novels as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Perhaps he didn’t know how quick death was coming when he said, “Go away. I’m all right.”

Quitting Quips

Lady Astor, who often traded words with Winston Churchill (see The Perfect Comeback), awoke to find herself surrounded by her entire family. She asked, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?”

Dominique Bouhours, taught grammar and rhetoric at French schools in the 1600’s. He is reported to have said, “I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct.”

Lope Felix de Vega Carpio was a prolific Spanish playwright and poet in the 16th and 17th centuries. Approaching the afterlife fictionally described in The Inferno, he said, “All right, then, I’ll say it, Dante makes me sick.”

Writer Oscar Wilde was legendary throughout his life for his quick wit. His last words? “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”

French philosopher and writer Voltaire was known for his vehement opposition to the Christian Church. A priest at his death bed asked him to renounce Satan, to which Voltaire is rumored to have responded, “Now, now, my good man, this is not the time for making enemies.”

Humphrey Bogart acted in over seventy films, my favorite of which is the classic Casablanca. He died in 1957, saying, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

I hope someday (many, many days from now) that I can speak words of incredible wisdom as I lay dying. More likely, I’ll say something like, “Will you hand me–” and no one will ever know what I wanted. Better yet, perhaps I’ll follow in the footsteps of Thomas de Mahay Favras. As he was led to the scaffold during the Reign of Terror, he was handed his official death sentence. His last words? “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.”

Which last words from above did you like most? What other famous last words do you know? Has anyone close to you spoken something profound at their death? What would you do you wish your last words would be?

Sources:,, The Phrase Finder,,,,, Wikiquote