Do you hear that music? It is so beautiful!
It is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.
— Claire, Final Words Project participant,
to her grown children a few hours before dying
Very little has been written about final words other than what is found in anthologies and websites that quote the clever exit lines of the famous. They include accounts of conversations like that of comedian Bob Hope with his wife, who, alarmed by her husband’s rapid decline, told him: “Bob, we never made arrangements for your burial. Where do you want to be buried, honey? We have to figure this out. Where do you want to be buried?”
His response, typical of his dry wit: “Surprise me!”
As is often the case with last words, Hope’s were true to character.
The awe-filled exclamation of Apple’s Steve Jobs — “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” — is an example of the intensified language we hear at the threshold and is true to the personality of the inspired innovator.
Another well-known pioneer, Thomas Edison, emerged from a coma as he was dying, opened his eyes, looked upward, and said, “It is very beautiful over there.” His words were representative of those of others who have stared out from the threshold.
Chaz Ebert, wife of celebrity critic Roger Ebert, shared a detailed account of her husband’s last words, in Esquire in 2013:
That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.
These remarkable words were read with fascination by people throughout the country — and have the authentic complexity of the words I have heard at the bedsides of those I have researched.
However, for the rest of us who are not celebrities, our last words go unedited and unrecorded in time. And yet all of us are given a platform before dying. Every day, compelling last words are spoken — and they are rarely as simple or clever as what we might find between the covers of books and magazines. Many final words are less literal, less intelligible, and more enigmatic — and their complexity makes them even more remarkable.
Sanctified Language at the End of Life
Our final words deeply reflect who we are and what most matters to us. Even those who have been in a coma and those who have not communicated in years may speak just before they die, to advise, forgive, love, or even to leave friends and family with mysterious phrases, such as “It’s not that,” “The pronoun is all wrong,” “I left the money in the third drawer down,” or a simple “Thank you. I love you.”
Buddhists believe that reflecting upon what might be our last words can deepen our acceptance of life’s impermanence and remind us to savor the present moment. In Buddhist and Hindu belief systems it has been a tradition for the dying to offer parting words of wisdom. Some Buddhist monks have even composed poems in their final moments.
Those who are dying are often perceived as having access to truths and revelations not available to those who are living. Final words are considered a golden seal upon our lives, like a stamp that sums up all our deeds and days and lets those around us know what we believe in and what really matters.
All of us will someday utter, think, or dream our final words. And most of us will one day be at the bedside of someone else who will do so. For those of us who are living, what exists beyond the threshold is a mystery — just as it was to all of those who came before us.
Tracking the Path of Final Words
Many intriguing questions remain about language, cognition, and consciousness at the end of life. Judging from the informal research of the Final Words Project, it appears that who we are in life is who we are in death; we cross the threshold with the symbols, metaphors, and meanings of our life narrative and enter into another dimension, or way of seeing, as our language gives way to increasingly figurative and nonsensical expression.
By honoring the language of the end of life — including the language that is unintelligible to us — we can better honor those we love in their final days and ultimately better understand the cognitive processes associated with dying. As we do, we will have deeper relationships with them and more meaningful memories, as well as possible answers to our inquiries about the afterlife.
Writing down our loved one’s final words can lead to insight and a sense of attunement with that person. Through examples of metaphors of the momentous, the dying often let us know that death is near — by speaking of an important occasion or momentous moment that is arriving, often using symbols connected to their lives. We also hear metaphors associated with traveling or leaving — and the data indicate that these metaphors usually have outside agency. That is, generally, dying people speak of awaiting vehicles of transportation — something outside of them takes them away.
The informal research of the Final Words Project, and the more rigorous research undertaken in decades past and present, indicates that people see and communicate with those who have died before them. And when they do so, a deep peace often accompanies these visions and visitations, which are usually different from the hallucinations associated with medications.
The images that emerge in the voices of the dying are often consistent with the speakers’ personalities and life stories, and these images sometimes evolve over days or even weeks in sustained narratives. We may find fascinating and complex repetition, such as “so much so in sorrow” or “how much wider does this wider go?” We may hear paradoxical speech or hybrid language in which it appears the person we love is standing between two worlds, such as when someone asks for his glasses in order to have a better view of the landscape unfolding before him. We may see remarkable surges of clarity just as it seems that our loved one is fading permanently into the dark.
These are some of the remarkable qualities of the language of the dying that you may discover when you are sitting bedside or find yourself at the threshold of life. You may have been, or perhaps someday will be, witness to sudden lucidity.
We may hear words of elevated or unique awareness or requests for forgiveness and reconciliation — or we may have shared death experiences, in which we ourselves seem to be taken out of the ordinary restrictions of time and place and seem to become more fully aligned with our loved one. Some of us may have unusual telepathic or symbolic communications that are different from what we have experienced before. Others may notice the many ways our loved ones tell us that death is near, such as my father’s announcement that the angels told him there were only three days left.
It appears that as we approach death, the areas in our brain associated with literal thought and language produce a new way of speaking and thinking. The shift may represent a larger movement away from this dimension to another — or at least to another way of thinking, feeling, and being. When we look at the utterances of the dying, we see that the language often forms a continuum, and this continuum appears to correlate with brain function. The continuum spans literal, figurative, and unintelligible language — and then finally nonverbal and even telepathic communication. Literal language is language of ordinary reality, the five senses; it is purposeful and intelligible language. Brain scans reveal that literal language such as “that chair over there has four brown legs and a white cushion” engages the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere houses the regions that are traditionally considered the speech centers.
However, the results are different when people speak metaphorically. A sentence such as “the chair over there looks like a koala bear” engages both the left and the right brain hemispheres. The right hemisphere has traditionally been associated with the more ineffable aspects of life: music, visual art, and spirituality. Metaphors appear to be a bridge between the two hemispheres and perhaps two different states of being.
Recent and early findings into nonsense reveal it may be associated with parts of the brain not associated with purposeful language, that it might be more closely related to music and mystical states. Speaking nonsense may be more like music, since it relies so heavily on the rhythms and sounds of language rather than its meanings. It appears that the very reductions we see in brain function at the end of life may correlate both to nonsensical language and to transpersonal and mystical states.
A New Transcendental Sense
Perhaps, then, we are hardwired for transcendent experience at the end of life. Many survivors of near-death experiences have said that when they died, they entered a world with no space or time. The language of the dying also seems to indicate changes in orientation. Phrases indicating movement and travel — such as “help me down from here” — came from people who were relatively motionless in bed. The language seems to indicate that people’s perception of themselves in space shifts significantly; and accordingly, so does their use of prepositions (those small words that describe position).
As we die, most of us move away from the sense-ical language of literal reality and toward a more non-sense-ical, nonsensory, or even multisensory awareness. The language patterns of those who have had near-death experiences track a very similar trajectory.
Perhaps the changes in language that we see at the end of life are part of the process of developing a new sense — not nonsense.
Hearing Is Healing
As we bear witness to the language of the dying, we are invited to journey with our beloveds into new territory.
When you sit beside the dying, open your heart.
And remember that hearing is healing. As you listen closely, you may find that your beloveds offer you insight and reassurance — even in words that may, upon first hearing them, be puzzling.
The more at ease we are with the language of the threshold, the greater comfort we can bring to those who are dying and to all those dear to our beloveds.
I asked Stephen Jones, of Hospice of Santa Barbara, if he would share some of his wisdom about communicating with those at the threshold. He wrote me to say, “The dying need us to be exceptional listeners in order to be understood. The language of the dying is comprehended best when taken in through the gill of our hearts. Each syllable is sacred and should be received as a gift.”
©2017 by Lisa Smartt. Used with permission of
New World Library, Novato, CA.
When her father became terminally ill with cancer, author Lisa Smartt began transcribing his conversations and noticed that his personality underwent inexplicable changes. Smartt’s father, once a skeptical man with a secular worldview, developed a deeply spiritual outlook in his final days ― a change reflected in his language. Baffled and intrigued, Smartt began to investigate what other people have said while nearing death, collecting more than one hundred case studies through interviews and transcripts.
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About the Author
Lisa Smartt, MA, is a linguist, educator, and poet. She is the author of Words at the Threshold: What We Say When We’re Nearing Death (New World Library 2017). The book is based on data collected through The Final Words Project, an ongoing study devoted to gathering and interpreting the mysterious language at end of life. She has worked closely with Raymond Moody, guided by his research into language, particularly unintelligible speech. They have co-facilitated presentations about language and consciousness at universities, hospices and conferences.