Linguist Michael Erard, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, shows a remarkable talent for writing on academic questions in a style unencumbered by the academy’s jargon. “What People Actually Say Before They Die,” which he wrote at the beginning of this year, appeared on the longform buffet again recently, courtesy of the curators of the Mozilla-owned Pocket.
The gratuitous use of actually in the headline alludes to the cultural hunger for famous last words that sound too much like sound bites or aphorisms to seem quite believable. Pithy sentences attributed to the dying, Erard writes, “are the cornerstone of a romantic vision of death — one that falsely promises a final burst of lucidity and meaning before a person passes.”
I find Erard’s piece especially significant because he stares into a phenomenon every person will face, usually in the order of being present with a loved one who is dying and later becoming the person who dies.
Erard’s article opens with the story of Mort Felix, a lifelong atheist who joked about his plans for an upbeat death but found a more harrowing experience during three painful weeks in 2002. Lisa Smartt, his daughter, took extensive notes on what Felix said during his final weeks, and later wrote “Words on the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death" (New World Library, 2017).
Erard writes about Smartt’s work:
One common pattern she noted was that when her father, Felix, used pronouns such as it and this, they didn’t clearly refer to anything. One time he said, “I want to pull these down to earth somehow … I really don’t know … no more earth binding.” What did these refer to? His sense of his body in space seemed to be shifting. “I got to go down there. I have to go down,” he said, even though there was nothing below him.
He also repeated words and phrases, often ones that made no sense. “The green dimension! The green dimension!” (Repetition is common in the speech of people with dementia and also those who are delirious.) Smartt found that repetitions often expressed themes such as gratitude and resistance to death. But there were also unexpected motifs, such as circles, numbers, and motion. “I’ve got to get off, get off! Off of this life,” Felix had said.