Last updated at 11:18 PM on 31st October 2011
During her eulogy to Steve Jobs, his sister Mona revealed that his last words, delivered while looking into the middle-distance, had been: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.’
To some, these words may seem a little monosyllabic, a little too repetitive. As the inventor of the Mac, perhaps Jobs could have been expected to say something rather more startlingly apt. We can only hope that the inventor of the text message, whoever that may be, makes the effort to say ‘OMG, OMG, OMG,’ before he dies.
On the other hand, there is a simplicity and poetry to Jobs’s near-palindrome, ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.’ There is also something touching about the way he managed to bring the same sense of wonderment to death as he did to life.
Wow: There is something touching about the way Steve Jobs managed to bring the same sense of wonderment to death as he did to life
Our last words are almost as difficult to get right as our first words. The only person whose first words were more interesting than ‘Mama’ or ‘Waargh!’ was Lord Macaulay, who said nothing at all until he was four years old.
His family had been growing worried that he would never talk, but it turned out that he was perfectly able to speak, but simply had found no reason to.
Then one day his nanny accidentally spilt boiling water over his foot, and bustled around trying to make it better. The little chap suddenly piped up: ‘You may now desist from your efforts. The pain has considerably abated.’
There’s a similar story told of a child who failed to speak until the age of five, when he suddenly said: ‘This toast is burnt.’ When asked why he hadn’t ever spoken before, he replied: ‘There wasn’t anything to complain about.’
But unless one is committing suicide or facing execution — and neither circumstance is really conducive to wisecracking — one’s last words will always be subject to death’s notoriously shaky time-keeping. You may have a witticism up your sleeve, but if you leave it too late, then you’ll never get a chance to say it.
If, on the other hand, you say it too early, you will then find yourself having to keep your mouth shut for days on end so as to ensure that they are your last words, rather than your second-last words, or, worse still, your 134th last words.
When Voltaire was on his deathbed, a priest asked him to renounce the Devil. He replied: ‘This is no time for making new enemies.’ And then, with perfect timing, he died. But, with such a good witticism under his belt, what if he had struggled on for another few days? The same goes for Oscar Wilde, who is always meant to have looked at the vulgar curtains of his cheap hotel, and then to have said: ‘Either those curtains go or I do,’ before dying.
But could this final episode really have been quite that neat? Isn’t it more likely that he spoke his prepared aphorism too soon, and then found himself obliged to keep his mouth shut until he died?
Or, perhaps more probable, did a kindly friend simply pretend that this was Oscar’s last joke, even though he had actually burbled quite a few banalities before he passed away?
Death catches even the grandest by surprise, so that their last words are not necessarily those they would have wished to be remembered by. Some have displayed a sense of over-confidence, which, a gunshot later, is revealed as misplaced. The last words of General John Sedgwick, the Unionist veteran in the American Civil War, were: ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.’
Lord Palmerston was similarly over-optimistic. ‘Die, my dear Doctor? That’s the last thing I shall do,’ he said — and then he died.
By contrast, Steve Jobs’s ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow,’ sounds both authentic and appropriate. It is, I suppose, a testament to his positive outlook, and our own 21st-century equivalent of the last words of the painter J. M. W. Turner: ‘The Sun is God.’
Sir Jimmy Savile died alone in his sleep, so his last words were not, alas, recorded
We prefer our celebrities to die in character. ‘If this is dying, then I don’t think much of it,’ said Lytton Strachey, the languid cynic to the end.
Somerset Maugham’s last words were much the same: ‘Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.’
Their contemporary Gertrude Stein, famous for her enigmatic pronouncements, asked on her deathbed: ‘What is the answer?’ When no answer came, she just laughed and said: ‘In that case, what is the question?’ A second later, she was dead.
It seems that Jimmy Savile died alone and in his sleep, so that his last words were not, alas, recorded. This seems a terrible shame. The perfect way for him to go would have been with the exclamation: ‘’Ow’s about that then, guys ’n’ gals?’
And when it’s time for his fellow octogenarian Jimmy Young to pass away, let’s hope he manages to breathe one last ‘TTFN’ before he goes.
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