Lisa Smartt, a poet and linguist, became fascinated by the beautiful, weird, cryptic words of the dying during her father's last days in 2012.
"I can't reach, Jack," he said. "My modality is broken." And, "There is so much so in sorrow." And, the one that stunned her, because he was not a religious man: "Lisa, you were right about the angels!"
She started the Final Words Project to collect other departing thoughts that people sent her. By nature, it was not scientific. These were anecdotes, words that relatives had taken the time to record and had deemed meaningful.
Her project, though, has spawned a study based at Montgomery County's Bryn Athyn College that will record the words - all of them - of people dying at home in the care of hospice. The goal is to analyze how communication changes in the last six weeks of life, in order to make the process less mysterious - and frightening - to family members and medical providers.
The first-of-its kind study will be run by an unusual trio: Smartt; Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, a psychology professor at the college; and Raymond Moody Jr., who is famous for studying near-death experiences (he coined the term in 1975) and who has more recently focused on categorizing nonsensical speech. His 70 kinds of nonsense will provide a template for analyzing some of the odder utterances.
The three of them spoke last weekend to more than 400 people at Bryn Athyn College's Mitchell Performing Arts Center. The event, titled "The Unintelligible Afterlife: What Deathbed Conversations Tell Us About a World Beyond," raised money for the research. Goldblatt Hyatt said grant funding was out because the project doesn't fit into the usual categories. She hopes to enroll five to 20 people in the study this year.
Despite the provocative title, Goldblatt Hyatt said that, for her, the study was not aimed at finding evidence that people who are dying are transitioning into a spirit world.
"I'm very skeptical with regard to language of the afterlife," she said. "We are not looking to prove that consciousness exists after death."
Moody's work chronicling bright lights, out-of-body experiences, and reunions with the departed for people on the brink of death is seen by many as evidence of an afterlife. But he, too, cautioned about reading too much into the phenomena he studies.
"Whether our spirits live on is an important philosophical question that science is not yet able to investigate," said Moody. A philosopher before he was a physician, Moody, 71, is energetic and infectiously curious.
He discounted the idea that the visions he has recorded are the result of dying brains, saying such things have also been experienced by traumatized but healthy people.
Of the three, Smartt is the one who views the words of the dying as a potential window into something else. As she writes on her website: "It is possible that the language of end of life is a 'transitional' language that emerges as we transition from life here on earth to another life, or another dimension."
Another possibility, she said during her speech Saturday, is that the way people speak at the end may reveal changing abilities. "Are we wired for transcendental experience at the end of life?" she asked.
She said metaphors about travel - "Jetta. I need to get my Jetta" - and big events figure prominently in many of the last words people have sent her. The dying also talk of seeing other people in rooms that appear empty to their relatives.
Moody said nonsense can be statements that don't make sense because they are factually wrong or statements that use made-up words or real words that don't belong together. Think nursery rhymes, doo-wop music and Dr. Seuss.
At the end of life, he said, people frequently say things that don't make sense. Yet it is also common, he said, for relatives to say what a religion professor told him about her husband: "I knew it was nonsense, but, in the back of my mind, I felt I knew I understood."
He asked how many in the audience had had a similar experience. Lots of hands shot up.
People are more likely to remember the last words that make sense, he said. He's excited that the new study will record all of the language, giving better insight into how the mind is changing.
Goldblatt Hyatt said she was "intrigued by the idea that the words of the dying might mean more than the living can appreciate." She wants to untangle linguistic patterns and analyze psychological themes. She's interested in whether personality remains stable through the dying process and whether the visions people describe or metaphors they use reflect the beliefs they've had throughout their lives.
The work, she said, may make it easier for families to "enter into the reality" of their dying loved ones, rather than deny it.
Matthew Mendlik, a neurologist and palliative care doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, said people who have near-death experiences are different from the truly dying in a key way that may be scientifically significant: They survived. He added that much of the way the brain works, both when it is healthy and when it is dying, remains a mystery.
It is not surprising, he said, that there might be common experiences as the body declines. "They call death the great equalizer for a good reason."
He said delirium, which causes visions, is common at the end of life. However, he said, we don't know why particular visions happen.
He agreed it was common for the dying to begin seeing or talking to people who are long dead. That, he said, "is one of the markers to us that things may be getting toward the end."
It is not final words that families ask him about most frequently. They are much more likely to wonder what to do when their loved ones stop talking. Families ask whether they can they still hear and understand.
Always assume they can, he tells them.