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Moira the Explorer: Famous Last Words

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I have a weird guilty pleasure: quotes. I love to collect quotes from famous leaders, writers, movie stars, rock stars and anyone in between. In particular I love last words. The final utterance of a human being before they depart. Though often they are phrases expressed with no thought to the value they will hold for posterity, last words can be seen as the culmination of one’s life. And thus I began to wonder: what makes last words valuable or quotable?

I’ve decided the last words that are quoted and shared most often are those that fall into one of three categories: Humorous last words, those that encapsulate the individual, and those that encapsulate the human experience.

Humorous last words are most often ironic. General John Sedgwick, a Union Commander was in battle in 1864 where he is reported to have said: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—“ before receiving a fatal bullet wound. Former U.S. President Millard Fillmore was bedridden when his doctor inquired about the meal he had just been served. The ill Fillmore replied: “The nourishment is palatable” before dying. These last words are quoted because of the dark humor they provide. We all enjoy a little schadenfreude, and these type of quotes are just that.

Last words that encapsulate the individual are valued because the individual himself (or herself) was valued. This genre of last words often originates from beloved war heroes or actors. Actor John Barrymore is known for his last words, that were just as witty as he was: “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.” American revolutionary war hero Nathan Hale is similarly quoted for his characteristic courageous statement, immediately prior to his hanging: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” However if the deceased is disliked, their characteristic final statement is likely to be as well. There is no one who is going to quote Stalin’s last words with a contented smile. Thus there is no quote in this category that is universally appreciated and admired.

The third and final category of last words is those utterances that encapsulate the human experience. These last words comment on the nature of life and death in a broader, often wise manner. Henry Ward Beecher was a notable evangelical clergyman and social reformer who worked for the cause of abolition in the 1800’s. His last words were: “Now comes the mystery.” This eloquent statement echoes with people because death is a mystery—the mystery—to all of humanity. The last words of South American Revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar have a similar resonance. The famed leader and former Venezuelan president is said to have called out: “Damn it! How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” Bolivar’s exclamation causes one to question all those horrifying existential questions: What is the labyrinth- is it life or is it death? And damn it, how does one in fact get out?”

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Moira the Explorer: Famous Last Words