May 23, 2008
News & Opinion: Powerlines
Powerlines for the Departed
T.S. Eliot reminds us in his poem, "The Hollow Men," that someday our mother planet will cease to exist, an event that will be inconsequential in relation to the greater universe:
"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper."
With luck, this termination is 5 or 6 billion years away. In the interim, as the only species able to read and write, we humans often give careful thought as to how we wish to be remembered. A great example is Johnny Carson, former host of The Tonight Show. When asked during a rare press interview what he would like inscribed on his tombstone, he replied, "I'll be right back."
Tombstones, gravestones, as well as other chiseled memorials are our way to memorialize our lives and perhaps get in a last word or two. For most of human history the concept of a permanent marker with some form of proclamation was the exception rather than the rule. Other than a few very famous, wealthy rulers and church leaders, most of those who lived and died prior to the 18th century were buried in unmarked graves.
In the early 1700s, the widespread use of tombstones suddenly became the rage across America. The earliest cemeteries in the United States are easy to identify because they were always placed at the intersection of two or more well-traveled roads. The purpose of this location was to confuse the spirits of the departed about which road to follow and prevent their return to haunt their still living relatives. And we wonder how family feuds were fueled through the ages.
With tombstones in vogue, the creation of epitaphs became a popular way to "brand" the deceased and distinguish them from their neighboring stones. Epitaphs ranged from ordinary, to flowery, to a statement of philosophy, and sometimes a warning. Often the deceased left specific instructions about inscriptions and sometimes family members or loyal followers chose a saying they believed the deceased would be comfortable with--for eternity.
Alas, even those words written in stone eventually succumb to the elements. Listed below, in alphabetical order, are ones that have survived the test of time.
Alexander the Great: A man of many accomplishments in his thirty short years.
"A tomb now suffices for him whom the world was not enough"
Gracie Allen and George Burns: The perfect comedian couple; she died many years before him of heart failure.
Mel Blanc: The beloved voice of many Looney Tunes cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny.
"That's all folks"
William Bligh: Captain of HMS Bounty, the scene of the most famous mutiny of all time. Bligh's insufferable ego is apparent in the length of his epitaph.
To the memory of
William Bligh, Esquire F.R.S.
Vice Admiral of the Blue
The celebrated navigator
Who first transplanted the breadfruit tree
From Otahette to the West Indies,
Bravely fought the battles of his country
And died beloved, respected, and lamented
On the 7th day of December, 1817
William H. Bonney: Known as Billy the Kid, a legend of the American West.
"Truth and history.
The boy bandit king
He died as he lived
William H. Bonney 'Billy the Kid'"
General Georges Boulanger and Marguerite de Bonnemains: He, a French career officer who eventually attempted to overthrow the government, buried her, his mistress, in 1891. He chose her epitaph and his. Less than three months after her death he shot himself at their grave site.
Her epitaph: "Marguerite, See you soon"
His epitaph: "Could I live two and a half months without you"
Al Capone: Notorious Chicagoland gangster
"My Jesus Mercy"
Nicolaus Copernicus: Father of modern astronomy and the first western scientist to proclaim the earth revolved round the sun.
"Sta sol ne moeare"
Translation: "Stand, sun, move not"
Jefferson Davis: President of the Confederacy, and clearly a defender of a different Constitution than the one in the National Archives.
An American soldier
And defender of the
Emily Dickinson: Famous 19th century poet; perhaps when God "calls," the rest of us we can ask for extra time?
Jackie Gleason: A gifted comedian who lived hard and made us laugh hard. For a big man, he was very light on his feet and famous for the phrase on his tombstone.
"And away we go"
Robin Hood: Yes, there was a real Robin who caused havoc in Sherwood Forest 700 years before Errol Flynn rode through the back lot of MGM studios. The modern English translation of his epitaph:
"Here underneath this little stone lays Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. No archer was as he so good, and people called him Robin Hood. Such an outlaw as he, and his men, will England never again." December 1247
Carl Jung: A brilliant psychologist, his words remind us that truth faith sees God caring whether we believe in a divine being or not.
Translation: "Invoked or not, the god is present".
Roger Maris: Hit 61 homers in 1961, which many believe to be the true record in baseball; this was way before guys on steroids tried to steal the glory.
Against all odds"
Bonnie Parker: Famous female gangster who, with her husband Clyde, robbed banks and killed people across Depression Era America. She certainly tried to present a sweeter eternal version of her philosophy for those she didn't shoot.
"As the flowers are all made sweeter
By the sunshine and the dew,
So this old world is made brighter
By the lives of folks like you."
Dorothy Parker: A world-class wit, writer, and social critic born in the last gasp of the 19th century who spent most of her adult life verbally blasting the 20th.
"Excuse my dust"
Edgar Allan Poe: Who knew that a West Point dropout would become a horror writer for the ages?
Quoth the raven,
William Shakespeare: The world's most famous playwright ... and well spoken for eternity.
"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To dig the dust encloased heare!
Blest be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that move my bones."
Unknown U. S. Solder: A reminder that the ultimate sacrifice is the price of enduring freedom.
In honored glory
An American Soldier
Known but to God"
William Butler Yeats: Those who study the poets think Yeats is one of the giants. He was troubled by man's inhumanity to man and thought focusing on death was a complete waste of time. Certainly no argument with that thought.
"Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!"
Last Words and Circumstances
The bad news is we all die eventually. The good news is the majority of us do so with friends or family at our side, present to hear our last words which usually fall into three categories--comfort, instruction, or observation. In death, the famous are on equal footing with the rest of us, except that those around them take great pains to write down their last words. Yet, even the famous are rarely remembered for their parting gems.
When I ask any room full of people to cite a famous American's last words, I usually get blank stares. On occasion, someone will come up with the chestnut, "On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia" attributed to comedian W. C Fields, or "I am sorry I have but one life to give for my country," the parting shot of Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale before being hanged by British Redcoats in 1776.
True Powerlines inspire, motivate, and direct us to take some action, including the recollection of the line. Last words rarely do any of the above.
The power of last lines seems to elude our minds, or perhaps we just do not like to dwell on the subject of death. Last words are not always necessarily enlightening or worthy of remembrance, and how people die is often more interesting than what they say for the last time.
Despite our general lack of attention, here are some of the more noteworthy last lines attributed to the famous or near famous.
John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams: Both American presidents, a father/son feat only recently replicated by the Bushes. Both Adams died in ironic circumstances.
"Oh, yes; it is the glorious fourth of July. It is a great day. It is a good day. God bless it. God bless you all." And then a brief time later he mumbled "Thomas Jefferson."
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, life-long political rivals and friends, died several hours apart on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after they both had signed the Declaration of Independence.
John Quincy Adams:
"This is the last of Earth! I am content."
At the time of his death, he was Congressman from Massachusetts, having decided to stay an active legislator after his one-term presidency from 1824 -1828. Adams suffered a stroke and collapsed on the floor of the House on February 21, 1848.
Nancy, Lady Astor: Famous New York socialite who, upon seeing family gathered at her bed side, uttered,
"Am I dying, or is this my birthday?"
Tallulah Bankhead: Hollywood starlet who was known for being party hearty.
"Codeine ... bourbon."
Alexander Graham Bell: Best known for inventing the telephone, he was cared for in his final hours by his deaf wife. She whispered to him,
"Don't leave me," and he wrote on a pad "No" and then ... did.
Humphrey Bogart: so many great movie parts as tough guy, so many great drinks under his belt.
"I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis."
Aaron Burr: Famous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr was a well-known atheist. At his death bed he was asked by a pastor friend if he would acknowledge God. Burr replied,
"On that subject I am coy."
Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus): Roman emperor, who upon being murdered by his own soldiers uttered,
"I live!" And he has, throughout history, as one of the worst leaders of all time.
Winston Churchill: Perhaps Britain's greatest politician of the 20th century and certainly her best historical writer and orator. At the end he had little to say.
"I'm bored with it all."
Joan Crawford: An actress who gave great attitude on and off screen, told her housekeeper, who was keeping death bed watch, to stop praying out loud.
"Damn it ... don't you dare ask God to help me."
Bing Crosby: Sang great and was greatly stubborn. Ignoring his doctor's advice, he played 18 holes of golf on the day he died. At the end of the round, he told his golf partners,
"That was a great game of golf, fellas." Twenty minutes later he died of a heart attack.
George Eastman: Inventor of photo equipment who left a suicide note pointing out the danger of declaring one's retirement.
"To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?"
General William Erskine: As he lay dying in 1813 after a leap from an upper story window in Lisbon, Portugal.
"Now why did I do that?"
James French: A convicted murderer who was put to death in the electric chair. At his execution he yelled to witnesses,
"Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? French Fries!"
Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War Union General who successfully brought the war to an end and went on to become a two-term president. To pay off considerable debts due to bad investment advice, he wrote a brilliant two- volume memoir, all the while suffering from terminal throat cancer. He completed the book shortly before his death. His last word:
Frank "Tight Lips" Gusenberg: Murdered in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Tight Lips proved that there is indeed occasional honor among the Tony Soprano set. In response to a policeman on the scene who asked "Who shot you?" he replied,
"Nobody shot me."
Alexander Hamilton: Among other achievements, he created the basis for the modern day monetary system and was the first U.S. secretary of the treasury. Always right on the money, after being fatally shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton told the doctor present,
"This is a mortal wound, doctor."
Henry VIII: Where to start? Henry ordered the beheading of multiple wives and others close to him, yet saved England from the dark grip of the Holy Roman Empire and attracted the best and the brightest for advice and counsel. On his deathbed,
"All is lost! Monks, Monks, Monks! So, now all is gone--Empire, Body, and Soul!"
Henrik Ibsen: Prolific Norwegian playwright, who responded to a bedside nurse's comment that he looked a little better,
"On the contrary." He died shortly thereafter.
Terry Kath: Rock musician in the band Chicago Transit Authority who, while cleaning a handgun decided to show off to friends, put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. The magazine was empty but there was a bullet in the chamber. Before his instant death,
"Don't worry ... it's not loaded."
Walt Kelly: A terrific cartoonist who wished for that last cup of Joe. As he lay in a hospital near death from diabetes complications, his wife said she was going down the hall for a cup of coffee. He replied,
"I wish I could go with you."
John Maynard Keynes: One of the greatest economists reminds us that some regrets have nothing to do with supply and demand theory, but rather are the simple pleasures of life.
"I should have drunk more Champagne."
Abraham Lincoln: Just before he was gunned down in Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln had no idea that he had delivered his last line to the living—in this case to his wife, who asked if they should hold hands in the Presidential Box. Lincoln responded,
"They won't think anything of it."
Alexander Litvinenko: A former Russian spy who was seemingly murdered with radiation poisoning in a London sushi bar in late November 2006. Just hours before his death he told an interviewer from the London Times,
"The bastards got me, but they won't get everybody."
Louis the XIV: He ruled France for a record 72 years and was nicknamed the Sun King.
"I am going, but the State shall always remain." Touche.
Karl Marx: One wonders if this world famous socialist ever relaxed and enjoyed life. When asked by his housekeeper if he had any last words, he yelled back,
"Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven't said enough!"
Harry "Breaker" Morant: His story was made famous in the movie Breaker Morant, a nickname which referred to his talent as a horse trainer for the British Army. Along with two others, Morant was executed by the British military for killing Boer prisoners. His final words to the firing squad,
"Don’t make a mess of it--shoot straight, you bastards."
Viscount Palmerston: This former prime minister showed the British to be masters of irony, right up until the end. Minutes before he passed away, he instructed his bedside doctor,
"Die, my dear doctor? That's the last thing I shall do."
Elvis Presley: Like many who rose to fame and fortune and were never comfortable with either, his last few years were marred by drug and alcohol addiction. At what turned out to be his final public statement to a press gathering he said,
"I hope I haven't bored you."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: One of the giants of the 20th century for his leadership of America and the free world through the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt was in failing health for many months before his death, finally caused by a massive cerebral hemorrhage. A great writer and orator, his final sentence was,
"I have a terrific headache."
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna: One of Mexico's most famous military leaders, he was known to be extremely vain. Apparently he spent many hours contemplating his last words. Finally, on his deathbed he uttered,
"God Bless, God Damn!" Surely not the words he intended to be remembered for.
George Bernard Shaw: Brilliant writer, playwright, social commentator, and foil who traded barbs with Winston Churchill off and on for years. His last words ring true for those of us who write to amuse.
"Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
Diana, Princess of Wales: A billion people watched her funeral and yet none remember what she said to medical workers who tried to save her life on the way to the hospital. Simply,
"My God, what's happened."
Dylan Thomas: A Welsh poet who drank as much as he wrote--and he wrote a lot during his brief thirty-nine year lifetime. At the end he said,
"I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that's a record."
Henry David Thoreau: Known as a gentle soul and a keen observer of life and nature. When asked by his pastor to make peace with God, he replied,
"I did not know that we had ever quarreled."
Oscar Wilde: A humorist who delighted audiences worldwide with wit and charm, and was a master at depicting ordinary life experiences with extraordinary delightful prose. One of my favorite Wilde lines is, "A man can be happy with any woman as long as he doesn’t love her." On his way to humorist heaven, he was funny to the end.
"Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.