Fascination with final words has no end

As baby boomers age, they look for meaning

May 06, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN REPORTER

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?

FOR THE RECORD - 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.

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.

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