On death scenes and final words

Montaigne muses in an early essay about the possibility that the true test of a life may be how well we act in our final scene. How well have we prepared ourselves for death? How do we face it? Do we regard it with equanimity? With cowardice? With ennui? Today, we rarely face it at all: we get crushed in cars, mangled by steel beams, or we lose our minds and fall asleep beside machines.

“Tell them it’s been a wonderful life,” Wittgenstein apparently quipped before his last breath. Seneca quipped also, jesting around with tranquility. In his essay “On Tranquility,” he relates that the philosopher Julius Canus had been put to death by Caligula. The philosopher plays out his final scene masterfully:

He [Canus] was playing checkers when the centurion who was dragging a column of doomed men to their death ordered Canus to join them. At the summons Canus counted out his pieces and said to his companion, “Don’t cheat after I die and say you won.” Then he nodded to the centurion and said, “You are witness that I am one piece ahead.”

In death, it’s always best to leave off one ahead.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On First Words, Last Lines, and Final Thoughts”

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