There are so many “famous last words” that the pressure is really up to have yours be something really good. You have no excuse, right? I mean, sure, not all of us will be lucky enough to go quietly into that good night, surrounded by loved ones, etc. etc. etc. But the chances are good enough that it just makes sense to start thinking about it now.

So I was thinking about it, and a nightmare scenario occurred to me. So there you are, surrounded by your family, about to meet your maker, and you sense that death is near, you’re sure of it, so you open up your mouth and summon with your last remaining breath those few words you’d been repeating since you were in your 20s, sure to make an impact. You say your piece. And then… And then nothing.

Turns out, you have, like, hours left. But you’ve already uttered what you obviously hope to be remembered by. Everyone is looking at you, and then looking at one another, and instead of the wailing, emotional catharsis that was supposed to follow your final heartbeat there’s a big, long, terrifyingly awkward silence. Just mortifying.

Anyway, what are the best last words you’ve heard?

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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

27 responses to “Famous Last Awkwords”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    I’m such a student of famous last words. It’s a wonderful idea, to me, the last few sentences uttered before you lose the ability to do so.

    Apocryphal though it may be, I love the words attributed to Wilde: ‘Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.’

    Was it Voltaire who was told to renounce Satan on his deathbed and said ‘Now now, this is no time to be making enemies?’

    Or, classily, one of the victims (ack! So bad with names today) of the French Revolution as he was being led from his cell to Madame Guillotine: ‘A thousand pardons, sir! Permit me to finish this last dozen of oysters!’

    • Anon says:

      One of my all-time favorites is Thomas de Mahay, the Marquis de Favras, on reviewing his death warrant: “I see you have made three spelling mistakes.”

      One of the last coherent things my father (a bit of a cranky bastard) wheezed at my surrounding family was, “Would you all please just SHUT UP?!?”

      • Simon Smithson says:

        I think I may wish to posthumusly marry Thomas de Mahay. Because that’s exactly the kind of awesome snarkiness I would want to leave my executioners with.

        Although they may have had the ultimate ace up the sleeve in that case, really.

        ‘OK, tell you what… I’ll review it over breakfast tomorrow.’

        • Anon says:

          For me, I can’t envision mustering the level of fatalism that would dictate a snarkily dignified final exit. I’m just not very good at quitting easily and cannot imagine calmly facing death at the hands of another human – if my mouth was free to speak, I’d rather be attempting to remove my executioners’ flesh with it and leave them something more memorable than words by which to remember me. Although I’d like to imagine that I’m devious enough to uncover some intimate details about the warden’s/hangman’s wife and/or daughter while awaiting the final day and then plant some seeds of outrage as the lever was pulled on me.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Who was the American killer who, faced with execution, wanted to think of something really memorable and intelligent and was so caught up in the prospect of his own demise he finally said ‘Let’s do it.’?

          Sorry – it’s been a sleepless sorta week and the staffers of my memory banks are taking a half day as a result.

          I think, personally, my witticism would come down to something like ‘Yeah? Well fuck YOUUUUUUUUUU!’

        • Anon says:

          I believe that was Gary Gilmore. I really like the bit attributed to Doc Holliday – “This is funny.”

          No need to apologize, friend. If I was any more fried, I’d be in danger of being a delicacy in our American South. My wife is getting over the flu, my dog died last Tuesday, my son has entered the “terrible twos” a touch early and my daughter is learning what it is to grieve. My weekend to-do list so far has “Scatter dog’s ashes” and “Restock entire wine cellar” on it. I don’t think I’ll have time for more. It should be enough.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I believe you’re right, actually.

          I liked Gary Larson’s idea of Marie Antoniett’s last words, in a last-ditch effort to save her head.

          ‘And ice-cream! I said let them eat cake and ice-cream!’

          Ah, man… the death of a pet. Horrible, horrible thing. There are few things I enjoy less than that experience.

        • Anon says:

          Assuming I make it to see my kids grow, maybe I’ll hit them with, “Don’t make me come back here, you two!” (:

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I do love the idea of a vague promise to return from beyond the grave. It’s the Cadillac of deathbed quotes, I think.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Anon, re helping your daughter deal with the death of the dog, my son and I made up a song for our newly dead parakeet which was catchy and stoopid enough to have us crying and laughing for days. Last couple nights I’ve been netflixly computer-watching James Herriot’s gentle comic/poignant “All Creatures Great And Small”. It’s about three veterinarians in a 1930s English village treating cows, pigs and dogs—and the attendant emotions of their owners, including little kids in the family. I once read one of Herriot’s books to a dying friend, and kept losing it at the vignette about an old favourite pet dog dying.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Judy: the one with the industrialist and his cat always had me busting up in tears. Fuck you, James Herriot!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Simon, I’ll check it out; haven’t read the book in years, and haven’t got to the tv series’ industrialist/cat bit yet. Herriot’s stuff’s a nice blend of goofy and weep-making. I also love that he’s Scottish!

          BTW, even you, oh Leader Dude, are allowed a *groaner* from time to time; to wit: “Should we really be joking about such a grave business, do you think?” Why oh why did I repeat it?! Must be a death wish.

        • Shya Scanlon says:

          I’ve always been partial to Pancho Villa’s highly meta last lines, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

          There’s something beautifully human about them. Both hopeful, scrappy, and resigned.

  2. Anon says:

    Murphy’s Law. I’m going to think of all these clever things to say – “You wait here – I’ll go for help.” – but, when my time comes, I’ll either end up with, “Where did I leave that damned sock?” or “cough-cough-blagh-gah-cough-wheeeeeeze”. If I can at least mutter a “Fuck!”, it won’t be a complete failure.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Ha! Good bit, Shya. Last sentence, “Just mortifying”, nice double entendre (“mortify” from Latin meaning “to produce death” or “kill”).

    Me giggling at Anon and Simon speculating about their last words. And giving hilarious examples. Oscar Wilde trumps ’em all (thanks, Simon): “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” hoo ha!

  4. Greg Olear says:

    “Jefferson lives! Liberty forever!” was kind of dopey, seeing as Jefferson had just died when Adams said it.

    For laudable last words, it’s hard to top, “Forgive them Lord; they know not what they do.” Probably apocryphal, and probably not his last words. (“Lord, why have you forsaken me?” in some versions) But pretty bad-ass, for the Prince of Peace.

  5. Henrik Ibsen’s response to his nurse’s observation that he was looking better: “On the contrary!”

  6. Rimbaud’s is a good’un – “Poetry is shit”

  7. Or then again, Thomas Pynchon is probably about right on famous last words:

    “What did Caesar whisper to his protégé as he fell? Et tu, Brute, the official lie, is about what you’d expect to get from them – it says exactly nothing. The moment of assassination is the moment when power and ignorance of power come together, with Death as validator. When one speaks to the other then it is not to pass the time if day with et-tu-Brutes. What passes is a truth so terrible that history – at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud – will never admit it. The truth will be repressed or in ages of particular elegance be disguised as something else.”

    Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973

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