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Hallo again to all.

We suspect we were one of many Anglicans across the globe taking part in the Great Litany this morning, the first Sunday in Lent. The solemn petitions and stirring cadences (whether Elizabethan or exiguously modernised) marched us through the thickets of our mischief and the assaults of the devil, past inordinate and sinful affections, around false doctrine and schism, by plague and pestilence and privy conspiracy, until we prayed for deliverance from 'dying suddenly and unprepared'. The final petition rolls majestically:

In all time of our tribulation;
In all time of our prosperity;
In the hour of death and in the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

The hour of death: by a gracious God, unpredictable and unknown* to us mortals. But as Christians, we're called to live with one eye on earth and one on heaven, and our end should always be somewhat in view, even if on the periphery of our vision. Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus)To that end, we took up some lighter Lenten reading — what better than a classic English murder mystery?§ — and came upon this description of a recently dead school master:

A book was open upon his lap, and Fen moved closer to examine it. Pilkington's French Grammar: The Use of the Subjunctive (I). Then a smear of blood. The trappings of death, Fen reflected, were only too often ignominious. To be hounded into eternity, like Pitt, voracious of pork pies, or with a mind preoccupied, in the last instant, with the French subjunctive. . .

Ah, Pitt the Younger and his death-bed appetite. Even if his last words weren't precisely 'I think I could eat one of Bellamy's pork pies', Disraeli rather thought they were†. But there is always a difficulty with last words, it seems: How does one know they are the last? Admittedly our forebears, living closer to serious illness, were more attentive to death's imminent arrival and apt to pay close attention to a loved one's last hours. What have come down to us as 'last words' may or may not be the actual last syllables, but we can assume they are very close. We sprint through some of the moving, the curious, and the pious:

Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known American preacher (1813-1887), is reputed to have said: 'Now comes the mystery'. Archbishop James Ussher exclaimed 'Lord forgive me, especially my sins of omission'. Leigh Richmond (1772-1827), author and poet, several times repeated: 'It will be all confusion'. His wife asked him what would be confusion: 'The Church! There will be such confusion'. (How prescient.) Dressed for mourning

Others on their deathbeds seem quite truly occupied with grammar. Dominique Bouhours, a French grammarian, exhorted: 'Je vais ou je vas mourir, l'un et l'autre se dit ou se disent'. ('I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct'). Some seemed to have continued their professions as they went about the business of dying: Joseph Henry Green (1791-1863), a distinguished English surgeon, is said to have remarked, 'Congestion', after taking an especially raspy breath, then checking his own pulse, announced 'Stopped' — and died. Charles James Fox (1749-1806), prime minister and colleague (or foe, depending) of Pitt the Younger, exclaimed simply: 'I die happy'. And the fascinating Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) philosophically commented: 'It has all been most interesting'.

John Henry Hobart (1776-1830), the great Bishop of New York and builder of the American church, after an excruciatingly painful illness of some 10 days, uttered at the last: 'I die at peace with all men, for I am sure I forgive all'. And GW Doane (1799-1859), second Bishop of New Jersey and perhaps Hobart's clearest successor in spirit, after a week's illness, proclaimed: 'I die in the faith of the Son of God, and in the confidence of his One Catholic and Apostolic Church. I have no merits — no man does — but my trust is in the mercy of Jesus'.

Some manage to 'speak volumes' at their end without saying anything at all. We were charmed by this description of the death of an English spinster, whose life spanned a good deal of the 18th and early 19th centuries: 'Elizabeth Cust, an imposing and witty old dame whom no one would have described as unsophisticated, [was] found at the last, standing lifeless, but bolt upright, prayerbook in hand, against some London railings on her way to church'.

Respice finem!

See you next week.

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Last updated: 10 February 2008

* Barring executions. (Of course some of the most well-known last words were at the block or the stake. But those are not, shall we say, impromptu utterances?)

§ Love Lies Bleeding, Edmund Crispin (1948)

† Some historians claim that Disraeli more or less invented the pork pie story at a later date and that Pitt more appropriately took leave of his life with thoughts of England and worries about Napoleon.

This was a Man: the Biography of the Honourable Edward Vesey Bligh, Diplomat, Parson, Squire, Esmé Wingfield-Stratford (1949)


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