A hazardous discovery in the forest

A hazardous discovery in the forest

Research into deathbed final words 

27-09-2022 · Background

Babies’ first words and the elderly’s deathbed final words. That is the subject of American author Michael Erard’s book, currently funding advisor for the Faculty of Law. He received an important American grant last summer.

It starts off as a bizarre discovery in the woods outside Portland (Maine), where Michael Erard lived before he settled in Maastricht. After a busy morning, he decides to go for a walk in the woods. He soon veers off the path to pick some blackberries. Threading his way through the grass that is as high as himself, he suddenly sees on the ground in front of him a jumble of bones. He stiffens. Erard has on previous occasions found bones belonging to deer or dogs here, but these are different. He walks around them and starts to wonder if they are human remains.  

He telephones the police and shortly afterwards three police cars stop at the edge of the woods. Erard: "For them this was a crime scene, with me as a suspect." A little further along, they find more bones, the arms and skull, possibly dragged away by animals. They appear to be the human remains of a woman.

This all happened in 2012. Erard was 44 at the time, he says in a restaurant on the Vrijthof. "My first child had just been born. My life was all about changing nappies and first bike rides. When suddenly death makes an entrance and I am confronted with transitoriness, mortality. Not that I had denied death before that, but now it hit me so hard that it made me sombre and fearful."


At the same time, he feels as though he has come across something dangerous, in a spiritual sense. In many cultures, he understands from anthropologists, there are two forms of dying. The biological one, in which the body dies, and the social one, often marked with a farewell ritual like a funeral. What does that mean for this dead woman? Farewells were never said for her. Would she still be among the living? How should he deal with this?

Erard becomes captivated by this woman, whose name appears to be Toina. He also feels responsible for the fact that she met her end all alone in the woods and never had a dignified farewell. When he finds out from the newspaper that she lived on the streets, he talks to other homeless people in order to find out more about her. He also attends a memorial service held in the soup kitchen. 

He discovers that she was Caucasian, thirty years of age, mother to several children and addicted to alcohol and painkillers. She had been missing for over a year, but this was never reported to the police. The cause of death was never determined.

Anyway, she was the reason for death being introduced in Erard’s life as he decides to carry out scientific research into the final words of people on their deathbed. Nobody heard the woman’s final words in the woods, but how is that for others? What do people say to their loved ones, when they are hovering on the edge of life and death?


For some, their last words were iconic. Irish writer Oscar Wilde apparently said: "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." Philosopher Karl Marx: "Go on, get out, last words are for fools who have not yet said enough!" And composer Ludwig von Beethoven: “Applaudiert, Freunde, die Komödie ist zu Ende.”

But reality is many times more prosaic, says Erard. "Most people have nothing to say, repeat what they have often said, or talk gibberish because of a delirium. Some merely utter unintelligible sounds, while others don’t even manage that and just remain quiet, because of a lack of strength or because their mouths are too dry due to medication."

This also appeared from observations of 486 patients who died between 1900 and 1904 in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Erard analysed this data and discovered that a mere sixteen patients spoke meaningful words or sentences on their deathbed. The article was published in the Omega, Journal of Death and Dying last year.

An interesting, scientific question is whether the sounds and words are from the persons themselves, or not? "They could be the result of reflexes from the body and not have any meaning. Or they are senseless phrases caused by a delirium. The question then is: is it the person speaking or the disease?"

That is similar to what parents ask themselves when their baby starts to babble. Does little Kim want to make something known or was it just a bodily 'burp'? Because of the overlap between first and last words, Erard is studying both. With his book – which is untitled at the moment – Erard wants to explain the linguistic and cultural history, based on a study of literature, research of archives and interviews.


Every year, Erard returns to that particular place in the woods to talk to Toina. "She is now one of my people who have died, alongside my deceased family members, friends, acquaintances, you name it. She taught me how to deal with the dead, how important it is to take care of them, to take a moment for them and commemorate them."

Not just your next of kin, he says, but also whole populations. "The US has a long history of eradicating indigenous tribes and would prefer to act as if it never happened. I argue for us to take care of all the dead in the past by way of a national healing process."

Something like that also applies to countries with a colonial past, such as the Netherlands, says Erard. "There is room for reflection for you all too. Not just from the distant past, by the way, but also for the many refugees who ended their lives in the Mediterranean Sea."

Photo: Shutterstock

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: Erard, law faculty, dying

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