Immortal Last Words by Terry Breverton

History’s Most Memorable Dying Remarks, Deathbed Declarations and Final Farewells

In his own Introduction, the author Terry Breverton describes this book as a “History of the World” seen through some of history’s most memorable final utterances. In one sense therefore this work is a work of reference: many lives, representing a wide cross section of humanity, are summed up each in a single page, headed by and placing in context a quotation either of the spoken word, the written reference such as a final letter or poem, the epitaph or tribute from a friend or supporter. In another sense, this is a source of entertainment and enjoyment as the reader appreciates the remark which may be quite appropriate to the circumstances, or conversely the quip which portrays heavy irony or appears to be at the very least “tongue in cheek”.

It would be difficult to imagine a wider cross section of humanity represented in these pages. In chronological terms, the book starts with Menkaura, the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh (c 2620 – 2480 BC) who built the third and smallest of the pyramids at Giza and concludes with Patrick Swayze the actor and Keith Floyd, the TV Chef, who both died on 14th September 2009. The subjects covered include leaders of world religions such as Jesus Christ and  Buddha, figures from classical antiquity such as Socrates, Horace and Vespasian, temporal rulers such as monarchs of different ages and countries, spiritual leaders such as popes or figures such as Mahatma Ghandi  and Martin Luther King; in addition many  poets, philosophers, politicians, musicians, martyrs, military leaders are included, not forgetting a number who represent recent popular culture such as Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, George Best and Farrah Fawcett. On a darker note, some of history’s more sinister aspects are not forgotten with the inclusion of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and a brief selection of Nazi war criminals who were hanged on 16th October 1946 following the Nuremberg War Trials.

Many of the references will already be well known to a majority of readers. Some of the more celebrated include the epitaph, written on Sir Cristopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, by his son: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you” (“Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”) and the final entry in the journal of Captain Oates in March 1912 on the return from the South Pole: “I am just going outside and may be sometime”. Famous quotations are also presented in their proper context: for example, the frequently misquoted, misattributed remark believed by students of French history to have been uttered by Louis XV of France : “Après moi, le déluge” is accurately rendered as “Après nous, le déluge” and correctly attributed to Madame de Pompadour, the favourite mistress of Louis XV who comforted him after the Battle of Rossbach (1757) during the Seven Years War.

The emotion of the moment or pathos is manifest on many occasions: “Pardon me, monsieur. It was not on purpose” (the last words of Marie Antoinette to her executioner after accidentally stepping on his foot ); “This is the end – for me the beginning of life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer shortly before his execution at Flossenburg on 9th April 1945, very shortly before the German surrender in World War Two) or Tony Hancock’s suicide note: “Things seemed to go too wrong too many times” are but a few touching examples.

Wit is never far from the mouths of a number of politicians or writers. Henry Fox, the Whig Politician anticipating a visit from George Selwyn, who was said to have a morbid fascination with corpses, is quoted during his last illness in 1774 as saying: “If Mr Selwyn calls, show him up: if I am alive I would like to see him; if I am dead he would like to see me.” On his deathbed, when asked to foreswear Satan, Voltaire was typically pithy: “This is no time to make new enemies”.

Not all of the quotations display weighty thought, or even insight. To the modern reader, although not to the speaker of the words, Major- General John Sedgwick, a Union Army General in the American Civil War, the expression “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” moments before he was shot conveys humour which would not be out of place in a modern film.

The occasional earthy quotation is included: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of the death of his then employer, the Contessa di Vercellis, concludes with: “At last she could hardly speak, and in her death agony, she let a big wind escape, “Well!” said she, turning around, “a woman that can fart is not yet dead!” These were her last words”. Other quotations are perhaps simply mundane: “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies” are attributed last words of William Pitt the Younger.

The pleasure in this work for the reader lies in the variety and range of lives covered, the authority of its research and the different sensitivities which it evokes. It is a work in which to delve or browse rather than to read from cover to cover. It is a book which in the selection of its subjects gives the reader an insight in to a great range of historical periods, political and cultural movements and individual lives and deaths. As the author states in his Introduction, the quotations included reflect both the follies and greatness of mankind. Perhaps it is a natural human desire to be associated in our final hours with a memorable saying, so the last words attributed to the Mexican folk hero, Francisco Villa may strike a chord: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something”.

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz.

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