December 18, 2017

Dying Words — the Blessing of Hope

Dave Barba

On a frigid, gray Monday morning I visited a cemetery in Nova Scotia, the burial ground of some Titanic victims. The snow crunched as I walked down the rows of granite tombstones. One epitaph is etched into my memory: “Here lies Lee Waldron King.” I lifted my camera to capture a memory. When the tombstone sharpened into focus, I stopped. Following the words of his birth and death were words covered with snow. Kneeling, I brushed away the white ice. “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.” For years I used that epitaph as a sermon illustration. If I meet Lee Waldron King in heaven, I will thank him for a window of light that has helped me preach the gospel.

A bank in New York had some flowers sent to a competitor who had recently moved into a new building. There was a mix-up at the flower shop, and the card sent with the arrangement read, “With our deepest sympathy.” The florist, who was greatly embarrassed, apologized. But he was even more embarrassed when he realized that the card intended for the bank was attached to a floral arrangement sent to a funeral home in honor of a deceased person. That card read, “Congratulations on your new location!”

Laura Ward, in her book Famous Last Words, said one reason she wrote her book was her “notion that a person’s departing sentence, however brief, can tell us something about the life that preceded it, and perhaps throw fresh light on that individual.” True or not, parting sentiments can be useful as sermon windows.

Some, while dying, are flippant. Just before the death of actor W. C. Fields, a friend visited his hospital room and was surprised to find him thumbing through a Bible. Asked what he was doing with a Bible, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

Others fear dying. Playwright Neil Simon was asked on the Dick Cavett Show whether making a lot of money concerned him. The studio went silent when Simon answered, “No . . . what does concern me is the fear of dying.”

The Christian, however, views death with faith. Faithful saints have provided us with dying words that comfort and inspire. Here are some final words of the flippant, the fearful, and the faithful.

Flippant—No Concern

John Sedgwick, a Civil War general, was warned not to put his head above the parapet during the Battle of the Wilderness. His reply was, “Nonsense; they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—”

John Field was a British pianist and composer. He was asked while dying, “Are you a Papist or a Calvinist?” He replied, “I am a pianist.”

Albert Fish was a sadistic child killer and cannibal. At his execution in the electric chair in 1936, he said, “What a thrill it will be to die in the electric chair . . . the supreme thrill, the only one I haven’t tried.”

Robert Alton Harris was executed in the California gas chamber in 1992. He said, “You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.”

Gary Gilmore was the first man to be executed in Utah after the U.S. Supreme Court had lifted its 1970 suspension of the death penalty. His final words were, “Let’s do it.”

Timothy McVeigh was the executed Oklahoma City bomber. Quoting the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, he said, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer was the freckle-faced star of “Our Gang” (the Little Rascals). In a bar, he rashly demanded repayment of a loan: “I want that 50 bucks you owe me—and I want it now.” His creditor was armed and shot him to death.

Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, died in 1923. Apparently he did not have dying words ready to deliver. He said, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

“I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies; I think that’s the record,” said Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, as he exited Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern in 1953. He then walked back to the Chelsea Hotel, where he dropped dead.

Pietro Aretino, a 16th-century Italian Renaissance dramatist, was anointed with holy oil during his last rites. His final words were purported to be, “Keep the rats away, now that I am all greased up.”

Movie star Joan Crawford was dying in 1977. Her housekeeper began to pray out loud. Crawford cursed loudly and said, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me!”

Fearful—No Hope

Caesar Borgia was a member of the infamous Florentine family. Near death, he said, “I have taken care of everything in life, only not for death—and now I have to die completely unprepared.”

Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher, corrupted a number of famous men of his day. His last words: “If I had the whole world, I would give it to live one day. I shall be glad to find a hole to creep out the world at. About to take a leap into the dark!”

William Pope (who died in 1797) led a company of infidels who ridiculed everything religious. Their typical exercise was to kick the Bible around the room and tear it up. Friends around his deathbed described it as a scene of terror. He died crying, “I have no contrition. I cannot repent. God will damn me. I know the day of grace is past. You see who is damned forever. . . . Oh, eternity! Eternity! . . . Nothing for me but hell. Come, eternal horrors. . . . I long to be in hell.”

Voltaire, the French infidel and prolific writer, attempted to destroy Christianity with ink. During his life, he bragged, “In twenty years, Christianity will be no more. My single hand shall destroy the edifice it took twelve apostles to rear.” According to the physician who was with him, Voltaire cried as he died, “I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months of life. Then I shall go to hell, and you will go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!” The nurse who attended him said, “For all the wealth in Europe I would not see another infidel die.” Not long after his death, the house in which he printed his blasphemous literature became the headquarters of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

O. Henry was the nom de plume of William Sidney Porter, an American short story writer who died in 1910. His final words were, “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Louis B. Mayer, Hollywood producer (died in 1957) said in despair, “Nothing matters. Nothing matters.”

Howard Hughes, worth 2.5 billion dollars at his death, spent his last fifteen years as a drug addict. No one mourned his death, but he did receive a moment of silence in his Las Vegas casinos. Time magazine said: “Howard Hughes’ death was commemorated in Las Vegas by a minute of silence. Casinos fell silent. Housewives stood uncomfortable clutching their paper cups full of coins at the slot machines, the blackjack games paused, and stickmen cradled their dice. Then a pit boss looked at his watch, leaned forward and whispered, ‘Okay, roll the dice. He’s had his minute.’”

Faithful—No Dread

As the apostle Paul faced execution in a Roman prison, he said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:7, 8a).

When the great Puritan John Owen lay on his deathbed, his secretary wrote (in his name) to a friend, “I am still in the land of the living.” “Stop,” said Owen. “Change that to say, ‘I am yet in the land of the dying, but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.’”

Charles Wesley: “I shall be satisfied with Thy likeness— satisfied, satisfied!”

John Wesley preached his last sermon of February 17, 1791, on the text, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6). The following day, very sick, he was put to bed in his home. During the days of his illness, he often repeated these words from one of his brother’s hymns: “I the chief of sinners am, But Jesus died for me!” His last words were, “The best of all is, God is with us!” He died March 2, 1791.

On his deathbed the British preacher Charles Simeon smiled brightly and asked, “What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time? The creation! I ask myself, ‘Did Jehovah create the world or did I?’ He did! Now if He made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, He certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus’ hands I can safely commit my spirit!”

Rev. Christopher P. Gadsen (died 1805), an American clergyman, raised his arms toward Heaven and said, “I am reaching toward my inheritance.”

William Gadsby (died 1844) traveled 60,000 miles and preached over 12,000 sermons. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral. His last words were, “I shall soon be with Him. Victory, victory, victory [then raising his hand] forever.

Welsh Baptist preacher Christmas Evans died in 1838. Famed for his eloquence, folks called him the Welsh Bunyan. He said on his deathbed, “I am about to leave you. I have labored in the sanctuary fifty-three years, and this is my comfort and confidence, that I have never labored without blood in the vessel. Goodbye! Drive on!”

Dr. Bob Jones Sr. died in 1968. In his biography, Builder of Bridges, R. K. Johnson recounts, “Mrs. Jones says that her husband’s last words before sinking into a semi-coma were, ‘Mary Gaston, get my shoes; I must go to preach.’”

Thursday, December 21, 1899, D. L. Moody cut short a crusade and returned home ill. He told his family, “I’m not discouraged. I want to live as long as I am useful, but when my work is done I want to be up and off.” The next day he awakened after a restless night. In careful, measured words he said, “Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me!” His son, Will, concluded his father was dreaming. “No, this is no dream, Will. It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.”

On November 2, 1982, Evangelist Lester Roloff walked to his airplane for a ministry trip with singers from his girls’ home. Before entering the plane, he said to a friend, “I believe this is going to be the greatest day of my life!” Flying toward the destination, the plane was gripped by powerful wind shear. Brother Roloff lost control and the plane crashed. All on board died—or should we say—began to live?

Last words reveal much. How will yours be measured— as flippant, fearful, or faithful?

Sources:

  • Johnson, R.K. Builder of Bridges (BJU Press).
  • Lockyer, Herbert. All the Last Words of Saints and Sinners (Kregel Publications).
  • Ward, Laura. Famous Last Words (PRC Publishing Ltd.).
  • www.eSermons.com.
  • www.sermonillustrator.org.

Dr. Dave Barba, in full-time ministry for thirty-one years, planted Falls Baptist Church (Wisconsin), Trinity Baptist Church (Tennessee), and spent nine years in itinerant evangelism. He and his wife Claudia now assist church planters in the USA through the work of Press On! Ministries (www.ipresson.com).

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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