Martin Toler, Jr. probably knew his life was coming to an end. Mr. Toler was trapped in the Sago Mine some two miles beneath the surface of the earth. Most likely, he knew others around him had already died. In his final hours, his thoughts turned to those closest to him, and Toler took the precious little energy he had left to scribble a note to his loved ones: “Tell all – I [will] see them on the other side…” “It wasn’t bad, I just went to sleep.” And at the bottom: “I love you.” Toler not only reached out to his family, but his message touched many of us.
Having grown up in and spending some years in the funeral business, I have talked with relatives who sat by the bedside of dying people…who have waited for those “last words.” We ascribe poignancy to the utterances of those who stand at that threshold between life and death. Many believe that possessing the knowledge of our own mortality is wherein we find our humanness…that this is what sets us apart from the other creatures of the earth. It is this knowledge that drives us to penetrate the mystery of death. Some people believe the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at the time of someone’s death, so we seek to share their experience. We want to know, when death is inevitable, what do the dying treasure most?
Mr. Toler answers with words of reassurance and compassion: His dying was gentle as falling to sleep, and, he told his loved ones, his connection to them will transcend this world. The simple message of this man is a gift to us all. It is a message that reminds us to honor and cherish the best in our human connectedness, suggesting that the most precious and holy thing in our lives is our relationships.
Last words have propelled us on our search for answers to profound questions. “Beautiful,” was the word uttered by the writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning as she died. Can death be beautiful? Charles Darwin exclaimed, “I am not the least afraid to die,” so we wonder, should I fear death. The last words uttered by Thomas Edison were, “It is very beautiful over there.” We ask, where is “over there?” Will I get there? Who is there waiting for me? According to the Gospel writer, Luke (23:46), Jesus’ last words were: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” We ask, to what will I commend my spirit?
You see, these last words teach not only about death, but if we are smart, they teach us also about how to live. Ultimately, they help us find the truth that is our impermanence, and remind us of the fragility of all that we love. These words can be a wondrous admonition to appreciate all that is in the life before us now.
Many people believe we will meet each other again on the “other side.” But with this hope, why should we not ask ourselves, can we meet each other now? Gautama Buddha said, “the whole of the holy life is good friends.” He seemed to believe that relationships are what give depth and meaning to our lives. My favorite quote, by an unknown author, is “Being a true friend is an art; having one, a gift.” The Buddha’s words challenge us to give that gift of ourselves to one another, even as we go about our own busy, self-absorbed lives.
"I love you," said Mr. Toler. "Beautiful," said Elizabeth Barrett Browning. We cannot know death except by dying: This mystery lies underneath the skin of life. But we can learn the important lessons of life from those who are closest to death’s door.