Death and dying are much publicized. Sometimes that coverage involves someone who’s still hale and hearty. For example, everyone knows of Mark Twain’s famous cablegram to the editor of the New York Journal: “Report of my death greatly exaggerated.” And, when the Times of London printed the obituary of Lord Desborough — who hadn’t died — Desborough phoned to say he was still alive. The editor replied, “I see sir. And where are you speaking from?”
We don’t know either Twain’s or Desborough’s actual last words, but many dying words have been made public, not always correctly.
When Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar’s last words as, “Et tu Brute?”(You too Brutus?), everyone believed it, but Roman records don’t support Shakespeare’s version. Besides, if Caesar had indeed said something similar, he’d have said it in Greek, not Latin — “Kai su teknon?” (You too, my son?) Still, Et tu Brute is close enough for most of us.
Sometimes the dying person makes the error himself. When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914, he said, “It is nothing. It is nothing.” Ferdinand’s ‘nothing’ was the catalyst for the First World War.
Douglas Fairbanks’s last words were: “I never felt
Nero also got it wrong. Just before killing himself, he declared, “What an artist dies in me!”
And, French philosopher Auguste Comte’s dying utterance was, “What an irreplaceable loss!”
Not all death-bed declarations are so self-centred. When Benjamin Disraeli lay dying, someone asked if he’d like Queen Victoria to visit. He replied, “It is better not. She will only ask me to take a message to Albert.”
Phineas Taylor Barnum of circus fame, asked with his final breath, “How were receipts today in Madison Square Garden?”
“I am about to — or am going to — die; either expression is used,” declared French grammarian and Jesuit priest, Dominique Bouhours.
“I can’t sleep,” complained J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.
Colonialist and statesman Cecil Rhodes, realizing he was dying, mourned, “So little done; so much to do.”
Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, begged, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
As English poet, Alexander Pope, neared death, his doctor assured him his health was improving. Pope commented, “Here am I, dying of a hundred good symptoms.”
Johnny Carson, when asked what he wanted inscribed on his gravestone, said, “I’ll be right back.” Asked the same question, U.S. dramatist George S. Kaufman replied, “Over my dead body.”
However, most tombstone inscriptions are written by others so we end up with this kind of honesty found on a stone in Selby, Yorkshire: “Here lies my wife a slattern and shrew,/If I said I was sorry, I should lie too.”
And this: “Beneath this stone, a lump of clay/Lies Arabella Young/Who on the 21st of May/Began to hold her tongue” — Hatfield, Massachusetts.
And: “My wife is dead, and here she lies,/Nobody laughs and nobody cries:/Where she is gone to and how she fares,/Nobody knows, and nobody cares” — Painsevick near Stroud, Gloucestershire.
(Sources: Cambridge Biographical Encylopedia; Foolish Words; The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes; 10,000 Jokes, Toasts & Stories.)