What People Are Really Saying as They Die

Piecing together a person's deathbed utterances might be able to provide insight for those left behind.

A hospice nurse visits an elderly patient. (Getty Images)
A hospice nurse visits an elderly patient. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

Linguist Lisa Smartt took inspiration from her father’s deathbed utterances and used her professional skills to transform them into a study of over 2,000 turns of phrase from nearly 200 people in their final moments.

The UC Berkeley grad turned her work into a book,  Words on the Threshold, published in early 2017, that explains what people are really saying when they’re dying. She collaborated with psychiatrist Raymond Moody Jr., best known for his work on “near-death experiences,” The Atlantic reported.

One common pattern she noted was that when her father used pronouns such as it and this, they didn’t clearly refer to anything. One time he said, “I want to pull these down to earth somehow … I really don’t know … no more earth binding.” But she had no idea what these referred to.

Smartt told The Atlantic that she’s been most surprised by that narratives that seem to unfold in people’s speech, piece by piece, over days. She noted in her research how early in his dying process, one man talked about a train stuck at a station, then days later referred to the repaired train, and then weeks later to how the train was moving northward.

 “If you just walk through the room and you heard your loved one talk about ‘Oh, there’s a boxing champion standing by my bed,’ that just sounds like some kind of hallucination,” Smartt said. “But if you see over time that that person has been talking about the boxing champion and having him wearing that, or doing this, you think, ‘Wow, there’s this narrative going on.’”


She imagines that tracking these story lines could be clinically useful, particularly as the stories move toward resolution, which might reflect a person’s sense of the impending end.

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