One of the things you used to get in books of quotations and anthologies of saying was famous last words. Very often they were listed separately, in a great wodge of dying words, one farewell after another, and the fascination of them was the way they varied from being solemn to witty to totally trivial. Heinrich Heine said, as he died: ‘God will forgive me. That's his job, after all.’ Goethe said: ‘Mehr Licht!’, or ‘More light! ‘, and nobody was ever quite sure whether this was a battle cry against the fading of the light or a request to draw the curtain. Though it has stuck in my mind for some odd reason that, apparently, if Goethe had been Scottish, his dying words would have been exactly the same, because the way the Scots said ‘More light’ was ‘Mair Licht’…!
I used to enjoy these lists tremendously. I loved the fact that Pitt the Younger said, the last thing before he died, ‘I think I could manage one of Belligham's pork pies…’ I have sometimes passed a butcher's shop in the Earls Court Road named Bellingham's and I have always wanted to go in and ask if they were the same piemongers…
I liked the way in which Oscar Wilde, the great wit of our age, is known for at least two different famous last words, both good. One was ‘I shall die as I have lived, beyond my means.’ The other, as he lay fading in the dingy bedroom in Paris to which he had been reduced, was supposedly: ‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do… ‘
And it never occurred to me at the time that all these dying words were ancient. Nobody modern seemed to have said anything interesting or banal or indeed anything at all as they died. The twentieth century seems to be completely barren of dying monologues. The only one I can ever think of is the supposed parting message of George V, though it is much disputed that he actually did say ‘Bugger Bognor ‘ as he died. And even if he did, it isn't much to put in the balance against the famous dying words of previous times. Is that the best the twentieth century can do, with all our tape recorders and camcorders, and electronic bugging devices? Does nobody say anything any more as they die?
Well, no, I don't think they do. I think we all die in a cloud of pain-killing drugs these days. As we sink towards our final moments, the hospital doesn't say: ‘Better wake them up and hear what their parting words are.’ They say – ‘Time for sleepy byes.’
Death is so softened for us and made easy that it would take a superhuman effort to wake up and suddenly declaim: ‘I think I could manage one of Bellingham's pork pies!’ let alone actually eat it. Death is the one area of life today where there are no drug tests. Everyone would fail the drug tests, because all the competitors on the last lap are on something powerful. It makes for an easier passing, but it doesn't help the cause of famous dying last words.
In the old days people gathered round your deathbed and listened to every word, sometimes for days on end. Whatever you said, somebody would have to write down, just in case it was your last words. When you next said something, they would cross out the last thing and put the next thing in. Nothing like that nowadays. Nowadays they gather in an anteroom and wonder what you have left them in their will.
And that's why I want to appeal to you to do something about your last words in advance. You know, you don't have to wait until the end of your life to make your last farewells, any more than you have to wait till then to make your will. Why not sort out well in advance, while you are still compos mentis, what you would like to say on your deathbed, and then have it registered well in advance?
It is quite legal to go to a trustworthy solicitor, if you can find one, and ask him to read out at your death not just your last wishes but your final words. We are allowed to specify what kind of a burial or cremation we want after our death. We are allowed to specify what kind of a party we want, even though we will be the only person not there. So why not a little matter of the last words we would like to have uttered if we had not been so sedated?
Even better, you can pre-record your last words while you are still healthy. It would be a simple matter to go to a solicitor and say into his tape recorder: ‘I hereby certify that these are the last words of me, the aforesaid. Hmmmm.... In a moment I shall be in a position to ask George V what he really thought of Bognor. I'll get back to you, if I can.’
Those are my last words, as a matter of fact. Well, they are at the moment. I keep changing them. Once a week I think of something better and I go back to my solicitor to rerecord it. He doesn't mind. It's all work to him. But one day I asked him if he wiped all the previous dying words every time I thought of a new one, and he confessed he had kept them all. He had a tape of at least two dozen tucked away. He said he hoped to turn them into an article when I was dead.
‘I think that's disgusting,’ I said, ‘to make money out of people's last messages.’
‘That comes well from you,’ he said. ‘I wager before the year is out you turn this all into an article or radio piece. Journalists would turn anything into material. The one thing journalists dread about dying is not being able to interview themselves as they do it.’
I think he may well be right. In fact, I'm not sure those wouldn't make rather good dying words. I'll pop round and change them after Christmas, I think.
BBC Radio 4 Fourth Column 1994