New Book studies Linguisting Patterns of the Dying


A person’s last words often take on an eerie significance, giving tantalizing clues about the ultimate fate of the human soul. Until recently, however, no one had systematically studied end-of-life communication by using examples from ordinary people.

Linguist Lisa Smartt changed all that with the Final Words Project, which she established in conjunction with world-renowned afterlife expert Raymond Moody. The project, which chronicles the linguistic patterns and themes behind the words people speak as they leave this world behind, is described in the new book, Words at the Threshold (New World Library).

Smartt’s research was initially inspired by what she saw and heard in the three weeks her father spent dying from complications related to prostate cancer. Within four years, she had collected hundreds of utterances analyzed for their linguistic patterns and themes. Words at the Threshold shares the findings of her research into this unchartered territory.

Smartt collected accounts and transcripts from health-care providers, friends, and family members of the dying. She gathered more than 1,500 English utterances, which ranged from single words to complete sentences, from those who were a few hours to a few weeks from dying. Her book, which offers stories and data from her research, aims to help readers better understand how to engage with those they love in their final days. It also offers a rational exploration of the question of an afterlife.

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