I’ve always been fascinated with last words. Here’s a brief sample:
- Marie Antoinette stepped on her executioner’s foot on her way to the guillotine. Her last words: “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.”
- As Benjamin Franklin lay dying at the age of 84, his daughter told him to change position in bed so he could breathe more easily. Franklin’s last words were, “A dying man can do nothing easy.”
- Leonardo da Vinci was something of a perfectionist. His last words: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
- According to Steve Jobs’ sister Mona, the Apple founder’s last words were, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
- Ironically, Nostradamus predicted, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.” He was right.
- Actor Michael Landon died of cancer in 1991. His family gathered around his bed, and his son said it was time to move on. Landon said, “You’re right. It’s time. I love you all.”
- John Wayne died at age 72 in L.A. He turned to his wife and said, “Of course I know who you are. You’re my girl. I love you.”
- Football coach Vince Lombardi died of cancer in 1970. As he died, Lombardi turned to his wife Marie and said, “Happy anniversary. I love you.”
Here’s something that caught my attention. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice maintains a digital archive of every death row inmate’s last statement. Going back to 1976, the total is 534 prisoners.
These prisoners have the rare guaranteed experience of knowing when they will die and what they want their last words to be. According to law scholar Kevin O’Neill, the right of a prisoner to speak before an execution spans back at least 500 years.
One website analyzed all of these prisoners’ final statements for common words and patterns. Of 534 total inmates, 417 inmates either spoke or wrote out a final statement. The others chose to remain silent.
Of course, many expressed their faith. The corrections department has coined the phrase, “Jailhouse Jesus,” to refer to the many death row conversions. Others expressed their sorrow, and still others maintained their innocence. There is a detailed report at the Priceonomics website if you would like to read more.
I simply want to point out that of the “last words” I listed above, the last three (Landon, Wayne, and Lombardi) spoke the most common word used by the Texas inmates prior to execution: Love. It is used by 63 percent of all those who spoke before dying. Other words that convey affection—heart, care, loved—also ranked high on this list.
In most cases, the word is used to address family members who are present at the execution, on the other side of the glass window. Other uses are directed toward the victim’s family members, still others toward lawyers and prison staff.
Here are a few examples of the actual last words from death row inmates:
- “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. Take care y’all.”
- “I say this with love: I’m sorry. I say this for my family with love and with God, I love you. To the family of my boss, I love you. All I have is love.”
- “I want to tell you folks there … I have a love in my heart for you.”
- “First, I would like to give praise to God for the love and grace that he has allowed for all of this to come together.”
The Priceonomics article closes with these words: Regardless of what an inmate chooses to express, the final statement is an important tradition to maintain. As one man said, while tied down on the lethal injection gurney, “Now that I am dying, I can tell the truth.” Not every inmate does so — but for the considerable majority of them, the final statement is an opportunity to express love and ask for forgiveness.
There is a lesson here. In life, we get caught up in so many things. Plans. Hopes. Details. But no matter who we are, no matter our age or station in life, from death row to the heights of success and fame, deep down we are all hungry to give and receive love. It’s the way God made us, and it is good to at least periodically remind ourselves of what really matters.
Expressing my love for you, hopefully not for the last time!,