It matters little how the head lies, so the heart be right.
-Sir Walter Raleigh (said on the scaffold where he was beheaded for treason)
My copy of The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable includes under D the fascinating entry “Dying Sayings.” This entry lists some 200 historical figures and the words that each was reported to have uttered at his or her death.
These sayings are interesting, not so much in a morbid sense, but in light of the colourful history that they reflect. In this connection it must be said that the dictionary’s editor cautiously observes at the head of the entry that “many of them are either apocryphal or have survived in inaccurate versions.”
With this disclaimer, he says it is likely that some or even the majority of the listed sayings were manufactured or heavily altered by a figure’s later followers and admirers – or perhaps enemies. Indeed, we could wonder: Is it very likely that people were always present for each person’s passing, and that someone was there in the drama of the moment, carefully recording the words spoken?
Yet the fact remains: these “dying sayings” do resonate with a rich history, revealing the way in which these figures were perceived by contemporary foes and allies alike.
A Saying’s Significance
It seems that the reasons for reporting (or inventing) a “dying saying” might be varied, yet it comes down to one thing: a “dying saying,” because it is spoken at the end of a person’s life, expresses something very important about that person’s outlook, life work, or defining moment. As was said, a devotee might construct some noble sounding words to be placed in the mouth of his hero; we hear the American hero and first president George Washington bravely utter on his deathbed, “It is well. I die hard, but am not afraid to go.”
At the same time, an opponent might concoct a “dying saying” as a way of demonstrating the figure’s supposed recognition that he was in the wrong. After a life of pursuing one path, he took another at death, or at least wished that he had. At death the macabre novelist Edgar Allen Poe allegedly cried: “Lord, help my soul!”
Sayings and Observations
The sayings in the mouths of different persons reflect very different attitudes about the destination that awaits them. While the philosopher Thomas Hobbes worried, “I am taking a fearful leap in the dark,” the deaf composer Beethoven said confidently, “I shall hear in heaven.” Others too, expressed great trust in God as their life on earth ended. It is said that the dying reformer Philip Melanchton responded to the question, “Do you want anything?” with a contented, “Nothing but heaven.” The essayist and editor Joseph Addison observed calmly of himself, “See in what peace a Christian can die,” but Goethe, another writer, cried out as death advanced, “Light, more light!”
For Goethe it appeared that death was an encroaching darkness, but others spoke of going to “the other side” in a different manner. Alexander II, tsar of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, is said to have met his death with these vivid words: “I am sweeping through the gates, washed in the blood of the Lamb.”
The Confederate commander Stonewall Jackson died with a pastoral setting in his mind’s eye, “Let us pass over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” The Romantic William Wordsworth looked when he lay dying and “said” to his deceased sister, “God bless you! Is that you, Dora?” The monk Antony of Padua said he saw not gates nor a river nor another person, but God himself: “I see my God. He calls me to Him.” In marked contrast to Antony’s godly expectation at death, the expiring Roman emperor Vespasian coolly anticipated that he was about to become a god himself, as many other Caesars did too: “I suppose that I am now becoming a god.”
Judging from the assembled sayings, the end of a person’s life can also be a time of repentance for past wrongs or a time of abrupt dependence on God. We hear the remorse of emperor Charles IX, in whose reign took place the violence of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; at his death he allegedly cried: “Nurse, nurse, what murder! What blood! O! I have done wrong: God pardon me!” Julian the Apostate, the aptly-named Roman emperor, tried to substitute paganism for Christianity across his empire and to organize a pagan church. He reportedly died with surrender on his lips: “You have conquered, O Galilean.”
Though some persons seem to see their life’s wrongs and empty strivings at death, others are defiant to the last. Charles Darwin, who needs no introduction, is said to have spoken bravely, “I am not in the least afraid to die.” The Roman emperor Nero, the deluded persecutor of Christians, also believed to be the one responsible for burning Rome and playing his fiddle all the while, exclaimed in his blind megalomania, “What an artist the world is losing in me!” The brutal French revolutionary leader Georges Danton similarly expressed audacity to the end, saying to his executioner, “Be sure you show the mob my head. It will be a long time before they see its like.”
The sayings of some people as they face death betray a sense of detachment from what is happening. Ann Boleyn, about to be disposed of by her husband Henry VIII, said rather clinically, “The executioner is, I believe, very expert; and my neck is very slender.” The Greek mathematician Archimedes devised ingenious military equipment for Carthage in their fierce wars with Rome. By his dying words we see that he was a mathematician to the very end of his life, for when he was ordered by a Roman soldier to follow him to the place of execution, Archimedes replied, “Wait till I have finished my problem.”
Some people at death have looked not only to their past or the present situation, but to future circumstances. The essayist and champion of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, spoke to posterity at his death, “My name and memory I leave to men’s charitable speeches, to foreign nations, and to the next age.” At his death, Michelangelo assessed his own future, “My soul I resign to God, my body to the earth, my worldly goods to my next of kin.” And William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament into English and went to the stake for his efforts, prayed that the work he had done would bear fruit, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.”
With their dying words, some captured in a nutshell phrase their life and work. They had spent many years spreading a particular teaching, pursuing a goal, developing a philosophy, and at death they affirm it one last time. John Adams, the second president of the United States affirmed: “Independence for ever.” The Carthaginian general Hannibal, long a troublesome thorn in the side of the Romans, threw a last mocking barb at his foe, “Let us now relieve the Romans of their fears by the death of a feeble old man.” The famed ornithologist Alexander Wilson ordered at his death, “Bury me where the birds will sing over my grave.”
Founders of False Religions
The dictionary entry also includes the dying saying of Mohammed, the chief prophet of Islam. Dying of a fever, he lay in the arms of his favourite wife, and said, “Oh Allah! Pardon my sins. Yes, I come.” This quotation is again a fine historical fragment: illustrative of his dependence on Allah, his urgent (if fearful) desire for pardon from his god, and his fixation on Paradise.
What about other founders of religions? Buddha, the so-called Enlightened One and teacher of the way of renunciation in a transient universe, died at the age of eighty. He was said to be decrepit in body but invincible in spirit, and died in a little town where he had been carrying out his task of itinerant preaching. Surrounded by about 500 disciples, the dying Buddha addressed his followers and spoke words that were true to the form of his life teaching: “Behold now, brethren, decay is inherent in all component things! Work out your own salvation with diligence.” Having said this, Buddha died – or, as some would say, passed into the realms of consciousness which none but he may know, so ending his last incarnation.
Confucius, the founder of the ethic of social propriety, died of old age after many years of spreading his teaching about duty, responsibility, submission, family and civil relations, and the goodness of man. Looking back in his final moments, he considered his life as an ambassador of truth to have failed, for he had not garnered many followers, and his teachings had not been applied by the empire and her rulers. He wailed over himself and the future, “The great mountain must crumble! The strong beam must break! And the wise man wither away like a plant! There is not one in the empire that will make me his master! My time has come to die!” Though at death he bemoaned his unsuccess, in time he would be hailed as the ethical master of many millions in the East.
Seven Last Words
The Christian faith has a long tradition of referring to and meditating on “The Seven Last Words of Christ.” These are the recorded words that Christ spoke when he hung on the cross of Golgotha. They are:
1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
2. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
3. “Dear woman, here is your son…Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
4. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
5. “I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
6. “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
These individual sayings may be studied with profit, but the good news is that they are certainly not the “last words” of Christ. His work of redemption was finished, and he completed his obedience to the very end, but Christ spoke again three days later after his resurrection from the dead.
The seven words of Christ on the cross resonate with his saving purpose and re-echo with his love for sinners. They are not the regrets of a disappointed teacher, the defiance of a proud revolutionary, or the ramblings of a deluded thinker—they are the words of one who as man was terrified to be cut off from God, and who as God was able to save us from our sins.
Because Jesus spoke these words on the cross, a Christian never needs to fear the death-bed or to dread our dying breaths. Our dying words might not be dramatic or poetic or even brave, but in Christ we can face death with confidence. For we know for certain that we are forgiven, that we are on the way to a glorious and perfect eternity, and that this last enemy Death has already been defeated by our Lord.