Her father's death moves a linguist to explore the meaning of the mysterious final words of the dying.
Posted in , Aug 5, 2016
About a year ago, I wrote an article for Mysterious Ways magazine about the last words of the dying. I’ve been fascinated by the topic ever since, especially since many last words are so cryptic. So I was thrilled to recently talk to Lisa Smartt, a linguist and founder of the Final Words Project. She’s analyzed almost 2,000 “end-of-life utterances” to make sense of the words of the dying. Her book, Words at the Threshold, based on data collected with Dr. Raymond Moody, is coming out March 2017.
Here’s what Lisa had to say about final words and her own personal connection to the field of research. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our interview, coming soon!
How did you get into studying the last words of the dying?
I have always had a love for language. I studied linguistics at UC Berkeley, and my career as a literacy and learning specialist involved analyzing how people acquire and process language. Plus, my dad was a psychologist and poet. We shared a love for words and ideas.
In 2012, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He started radiation and, due to complications from the treatment, only lived for three weeks after that. I found solace during that time in writing down everything he said. I was able to track his consciousness in those final days.
There were so many things that baffled and touched me. After he died, I was left with so many questions. That’s what led me to research last words and start the Final Words Project with Dr. Moody.
What about your dad’s last words was so fascinating?
I was especially drawn to his use of metaphors and symbols. He talked about needing help to “come down,” as if he were floating. He said things like, “I am in the green dimension” or “I need maintenance…there is nothing for this.”
A day before he died, he was on the phone with his secretary, Alice, and he said, “This is very interesting, Alice, I’ve never done this before.” What was the “this” he spoke about? Why didn’t he just say “dying”? Was he undergoing something else for which he had no words?
He also spoke of all the people crowding the room, even though there was no one there. There was a kind of sacred quality around my father, much like the energy in a room of a woman who’s just given birth. It’s not that his dying was beautiful and easy. But I became convinced that something was happening that was sacred and holy.
Did anything strike you as particularly out of character for your dad?
One day, as I sat beside him, his eyes popped open and his eyes tracked the edges of the ceiling. “Lisa, Lisa!” he said. “You were right about the angels!” He had never talked about or believed in angels before.
Ten days later, he announced, “Enough…the angels say enough…only three days left.” These were all words from a man who was once so lucid and very bright. It seemed to signal that his mind was in transition. His mind was seeing and feeling things outside the usual narrative of our ordinary life.
Why did you take your dad’s “nonsense talk” seriously?
I’d been trained to take all language seriously. Not to judge language, but to transcribe and then understand it. As a linguist, if you hear a language or a dialect that is very different than your own, you don’t think, “That language is all wrong. That dialect is bad.” You think, “How fascinating, I want to understand the patterns and structure of that language.”
There is organization in all language, no matter how nonsensical it is. On the surface, the language of the dying may seem like “word salad,” but there are actually patterns that appear to be unique to dying and seem to track the pathway of consciousness in a person’s final days.
What were your dad’s very last words?
They were uttered privately to my mother–“Thank you. I love you.”
Have a question for Lisa? Ask away in the comments below!