As famous last words go, the simplest are often the most powerful.
The poet Seamus Heaney left this world after telling his wife ‘don’t be afraid’.
That he did it in Latin (nolle timere) and by text message is both beautiful and oh so 21st century.
The beauty comes from two things. The first is the meaning behind the words. They are a last message to the woman he loved delivered at a time when he had every right to be in need of a cuddle and soothing words himself. The text message gives his wife something to keep, time stamped electronically, forever. Or at least until she gets an upgrade.
The second source of beauty is the Latin. Everything seems more lovely in another language.
Vestibulum ego lac quid vis? That means ‘I’m going to buy some milk, do you want anything’?
Vos odorandum pisces? Is it me reading you something about your star sign? No. I’m just asking, ‘can you smell fish’?
Even the most mundane of matters sounds romantic in Latin. It’s like wiping your bottom on silk.
But the language choice aside, the final message of Seamus Heaney got me thinking about the last things we say on Earth.
It’s a depressing thought but none of us know if the next thing we say will precede the end.
It would be fantastic to know I could go out with a flourish like Spike Milligan (‘I told you I was ill’) or Oscar Wilde (‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.’).
I’d like to be able to dispense some practical advice like Conrad N Hilton, the man who founded the Hilton hotel empire (‘Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub’) or simply face up to the excesses that have brought me face to face with my maker like Humphrey Bogart (‘I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis’).
For some it might be better that the last thing they say in public is something normal because it can take on an added poignancy.
The last recorded words of Elvis Presley were at a press conference when he said: “I hope I haven’t bored you”. It sounds like a humble message from the undisputed King.
And it’s a lot better than what he probably said on or near his toilet, which would be along the lines of ‘why did I eat so many bloomin’ burgers?’
It creates a feeling in my stomach like solidifying cement or one of Presley’s famous peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches to think that I could go after saying something so dull like ‘I’m just going down the shops’ or, more likely, ‘Aaaaaaaagh’.
And it has happened to the great and the good.
John Sedgwick, a general in the Union Army in the American Civil War declared ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance’.
Seconds later he was shot in the left eye. Famous last words, indeed.
Then again I suppose it’s better not to know when the reaper is going to call.
All those people who said something meaningful have had to come to terms with their own mortality. To do so and still come up with something that doesn’t sound completely, justifiably, self-pitying requires a level of wit and bravery I think I would be incapable of achieving.
I could spend the rest of my life trying to think up last words and never be satisfied.
And in the meantime I’ll try to remembers the words of either Bob Monkhouse or Jack Handey, depending on which book of famous quotes you’re using:
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my father. Not screaming and terrified like his passengers.”
Keith Harrison is away