Last_Words

What Are You Actually Supposed to Do With Somebody’s Last Words?

Despite what the history books tell us, most people’s final statements are unlikely to be inspiring or even coherent — and they’re almost certainly not legally binding

No one knows for certain what Dr. Thomas Neill Cream — a Scottish-Canadian serial killer, also known as the Lambeth Poisoner — said just before he was hanged in 1892. By some historical accounts, he is said to have uttered, “I am Jack the—” as the noose tightened around his neck, using his final second of life to confess to being an entirely different famed serial killer, Jack the Ripper. (Considering Cream was already in prison at the time of the Ripper murders, he was almost certainly not.) An alternative account, however, by one of Cream’s biographers, suggests that Cream was so terrified in the moments leading up to his own execution that he lost all control of his body and announced, “I am ejaculating.” 

Now, to be fair, “I am Jack” and “I am ejaculating,” do sound somewhat alike. It should also be considered that Cream was choking to death when he said whatever it is he actually said, which surely made it even harder to decipher. But that’s if he even said anything at all: This itself is in dispute, since the only person who claims to have heard these words was his executioner — no one else at the well-attended occasion heard either version.

Whether or not he really gasped out something, his alleged statement — and the conspiracy theories it’s fueled — is indicative of something far more important than even the Ripper’s true identity: The spurious but ever-impactful nature of a dying person’s last words.

For a more recent example, it was reported that Kirk Douglas’ last words to his son, Michael, were, “Mike [Bloomberg] can get it done,” referring to the billionaire’s now-defunct presidential campaign. Which, naturally, raises a lot of questions: What did he mean by that? Did the Spartacus actor really believe our last and only hope is an arrogant billionaire who seemed to delight in instituting racist policies as mayor (that seems like more of a Charlton Heston move, you know)? If so, what’s the younger Douglas supposed to do with that information? And if the whole thing was scripted by the younger Douglas — for reasons that, again, raise more questions than they do answers — is there any recourse for fact-checking a dead person’s final plea to the living? 

What, in short, are you supposed to do with someone’s last words?

Fact-Checking Famous Final Words

The historical records seem to indicate that a vast number of famous dead people, when facing the light, were surprisingly chatty. The prolific Italian artist and poet Michelangelo announced, “I’m still learning,” just before he died. When French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire was asked to renounce Satan before passing on, he famously and cleverly declared, “Now is not the time for making new enemies.” And then there’s legendary German physicist Albert Einstein, who said, “I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” And so he did, after refusing surgery to potentially fix the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm that had been previously reinforced via a different surgery. 

Not all memorable last words are noble or awe-inspiring, of course. Winston Churchill — a man known for his myriad quotes — is said to have used his dying breath to proclaim, “I’m so bored with it all…” to his son-in-law, Christopher Soames. Franz Kafka apparently asked his doctors to kill him with an overdose of morphine as he suffered death at the hands of tuberculosis, accusing them of being “murderers” if they refused. Tupac famously used his final moments of life to stay true to form: “‘He looked at me, and he took a breath to get the words out, and he opened his mouth,’ says Chris Carroll, a retired sergeant with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department … ‘And then the words came out: ‘Fuck you,’” reported Rolling Stone in 2014. 

In Tupac’s case, as with most famous last words, there’s really no way to verify whether or not he actually said what Carroll claims he did — you either believe Carroll or you don’t. According to Dan Mac Guill, a writer and fact-checker at Snopes, in cases where video or audio recordings aren’t available — either because the words were uttered before the invention of those technologies, or they simply weren’t present in the moment — the basic process and aims are the same as any other fact check: First, you have to find the original source. “In some cases, that’s straightforward — if the person to whom a quotation is attributed wrote the words herself, and the quotation is loyal to the original, then you have your verification,” he tells me. “Take, for example, this fact check of a meme that attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt a quotation about the word ‘liberal.’ A relatively straightforward online search revealed that Roosevelt had indeed written those words herself, in a book in the early 1960s.

As for sources like books, news reports or transcripts of speeches, Mac Guill says, “In order to evaluate their reliability, you have to consider a few other factors,” he says. “For example, how close was the person reporting the comments to the person who supposedly made them? If they were physically in the room, that’s better than if they heard them secondhand from someone who was. But it’s not necessarily definitive. People can sometimes have their own biases or agendas, which means they misinterpret, misrepresent or even fabricate the words of others.”

This is why, in the case of a person’s final words, the second step is to look for corroboration. “Leonardo da Vinci’s dying words are widely claimed to have been, ‘I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have,’” says Mac Guill. “In order to evaluate that quotation, I used various search engines and archival resources and eventually traced its origins back to a 1568 book by the Italian historian Giorgio Vasari.” At first glance, Mac Guill says that the Italian historian’s book might appear to be a fairly reliable source, but what he discovered was four key factors that severely undermined its reliability. “Vasari wasn’t himself in the room when Leonardo died, and yet he described his words, without providing a source; the book was written 50 years after the event of Leonardo’s death; and other details about the circumstances of Leonardo’s death, provided by Vasari, have been disputed by other historians (therefore undermining the credibility of his other claims),” says Mac Guill. 

Finally, he tells me, Vasari had a religious agenda, which means his claim that Leonardo humbled himself before God just before he died should be viewed with skepticism. “So after going through the processes of verification that I’ve outlined, my conclusion was that Leonardo might have said those words just before dying, but he probably didn’t.”

The Reality of Final Words

Mac Guill’s determination that Da Vinci “probably didn’t” say some of his most famous words is the skeptical lens through which most final words ought to be analyzed. It’s not just that final words are often difficult to verify, either — there’s also the sad fact that most people simply don’t speak as coherently in their final moments as these famous, epitaphic epigrams would lead us to believe. As Maureen Keeley, a senior faculty member in the area of interpersonal communication at Texas State University, explained to The Atlantic last year, when the body shuts down, the person lacks the strength to say much of anything, let alone utter a “final message.” “People will whisper, and they’ll be brief, single words — that’s all they have energy for,” Keeley stated. 

The person’s speech is hampered by multiple obstacles: discombobulating medications, dry mouth and a lack of dentures, to name a few. “Many people die in such silence, particularly if they have advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s that robbed them of language years earlier,” writes Michael Erard in the same article. “For those who do speak, it seems their vernacular is often banal. From a doctor I heard that people often say, ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck.’ Often it’s the names of wives, husbands, children.”

Hospice nurses — the people most intimately acquainted with a person’s final moments (roughly half of Americans are choosing to die at home under palliative care) — seem to agree. Kerry Egan, an author and former hospice chaplain, admitted to Hospice Care of the Lowcountry that a person’s final words are nothing like the clean, calm, bizarrely romantic, always with the good sense to close your eyes before taking a long sigh and limply tossing your head to the side, and beautiful, urgent, life-altering utterances,” of Hollywood movies. “So, if this is what you think happens in death, I can see how you would feel a lot of pressure to get it right,” Egan continued. “People who are dying are often unconscious for days before they die. Sometimes, they’re in pain. They’re often highly medicated. Honestly, most of the last words I have heard are so mundane, I can’t even give an example. When you know you have a terminal diagnosis, death often takes a person by surprise. You might not even know that your last words are your last words.”

It’s likely, then, that a person’s last words aren’t even uttered with their final breath, but instead, several days or weeks before they begin the process of dying. Lauren, a hospice nurse in L.A., confirms that in most cases, the person dying under hospice care is already connected to a ventilator. “At the end, it’s just the white noise of the machine,” she says. “Most people talk to their loved ones in private conversations long before they take their final breath.” To that end, Lauren tells me that in those final hours, the only audible voice is usually that of family members of the soon to be deceased, who take the opportunity to say whatever it is they want to say.

The Legality of a Deathbed Will

This blurred space between what a person says when they’re just about to die, what is heard by those around them and how said communication is interpreted, becomes even more complicated if any party involved attempts to use it to alter a standing legal agreement. The concept is referred to as a “deathbed will,” when “someone facing imminent death may decide to draft and sign a new will,” per AllLaw.com. “Last year I had someone execute their plan when they were just a couple weeks away from dying,” says Emily T. Porter, an estate planning lawyer in L.A. “They were terminally ill and they wanted to remove their former spouse, but had to wait until their divorce was finalized.”

Of course, in that case, Porter’s client didn’t wait until the absolute last moment to change their will. If, however, Porter’s client had changed her mind about leaving her spouse out of the will in the literal final moments of her life, the last-minute change would have to be documented to have any shot at holding up in court. “Obviously, first of all, they have to have the capacity,” says Porter. “If they don’t have the mental capacity to change their mind, we can’t be certain that that’s actually what they were wishing and not just kind of in a dream, or something like that.”

According to AllLaw.com, “under very unusual circumstances, an oral deathbed will, also called a nuncupative will, may be valid.” While, in most states, such a claim is unlikely to hold up in court, Porter says that a person could, in theory, attempt to convince a judge of just about anything. “If they brought claims in court, they could present whatever evidence they had,” she says. “So I certainly wouldn’t say someone never has any recourse. They can present whatever evidence they have. It’s just whether or not a judge and jury would accept it.”

For that reason, Porter says that a person’s dying plea has to be written down or recorded. “You could have a holographic will, which is written in your own handwriting,” she says. “But if it’s typed, it needs to be witnessed by two people and signed.”

The Suicide Note 

There is, however, the other variation of a “holographic will,” more commonly referred to as a suicide note. As reported by NPR, about a third of people who attempt suicide leave a note behind, but like a “deathbed will,” for a suicide note to be considered legally binding, “testamentary capacity must be established.” “Testamentary capacity refers to the person’s legal and mental ability to make or alter their will,” states WillContesting.com. “It is dependant on the frame of mind of the person prior to their death; their ability to understand facts relevant to their decision and to appreciate the consequences of that decision.”

In one 2015 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that nearly 21 percent of the 285 available suicide notes they examined contained will content. “Of those who left a will, 43 (72.9 percent) were reported to have a major mood or psychotic disorder, but none had dementia,” per the study. “Fifteen of 19 toxicology samples showed alcohol, sedative hypnotic/benzodiazepine, opioid and/or recreational drugs were present.”

According to the study’s authors, in such cases when testamentary capacity is determined, the courts are more likely to accept the intent behind the “suicide note will” if the people inheriting the individual’s assets would have gotten them anyway. “The absence of information about prior wills or wishes from the same people is also a limitation given that a significant deviation from prior expressed wishes could also be a factor that influences testamentary capacity,” write the study’s authors.

The Death-Row Inmate’s Final Plea

Like suicide, which involves a certain level of predetermination — albeit in many cases, no more than a few moments — the case of a death-row inmate also allows a fixed time to make a final plea. In these cases, more than in any other, the final words of a person are likely to be heard coherently, and with an audience of several witnesses. Often, these final words are downright strange: Before his execution in 1982, 20-year-old Jimmy Glass said he’d “rather be fishing.” Other times, stricken with the bleak absurdity of what’s about to take place, a death-row inmate finds unnerving humor in the final moments. In 1928, before his execution via the electric chair, convicted murderer John George Appel quipped, “Well, gentlemen, you are about to see a baked Appel.” 

More recently, the final words of death-row inmates have been more apologetic, going by a Fox News article compiling last words from inmates executed in the last few years. “I wanted to apologize for the grief and the pain that I caused y’all,” 37-year-old Mark Soliz said before he was put to death. “I’ve been considering changing my life. It took me 27 years to do so. Man, I want to apologize, I don’t know if me passing will bring y’all comfort for the pain and suffering I caused y’all. I am at peace. Oh man, I didn’t know if y’all would come or not, but I am glad y’all did so I could talk to y’all. I know the pain when I talk to my grandma. I’m just glad I got a chance to talk to y’all.”

It’s a theme further explored by GoodByeWarden.com, a website established in 2014 that collected the final words of “565 human beings who faced certain, unavoidable death.” A quick glance at many of the entries reveals that most death-row inmates use their final words to apologize to their victims, as well as make one final plea to their respective God. 

The Last Word

All of which brings us back to the initial question of what we, the living, are supposed to do with the final words of a dying person. Clearly, based on the longevity of many of these quotes, those of us who hear them find their message to be invaluable. But if we’re being honest about the nature of our functioning (or lack thereof) at the point of death, it’s obvious that few people are coherent enough to be remarkable, clever or quirky in their final moments. 

Perhaps, then, the final quotes we’ve grown to admire from those who’ve left this world aren’t drawn from a final breath, but rather edited together from the final few days or even minutes before their curtain call. As such, they should be renamed as the last words we choose to remember them by, which, frankly, is probably true of just about every famous final statement you’ve ever read. Actual, final last words are almost certainly going to come not from a place of inspiration, but of fear, pain, confusion or all three. 

And this being the case, we can go ahead and assume that maybe “I am ejaculating” was Cream’s final statement after all.