Etched on gravestones, epitaphs reflect our humanity in all its refined and ragged forms. As we approach the new year we are confronted with nagging resolutions to do better. If we knew this would be our last year as earth-tethered humans, how do we want to be remembered? What do we want on our tombstones? If we don’t plan ahead, our wishes may be preempted.
One enterprising young widow seized the opportunity and turned her husband’s tomb into the ultimate dating site. She was intent on finding husband #2:
Sacred to the memory of Mr. James Bates,
who died Aug. 6, 1800.
His widow, age 24, who mourns as one
who Can be comforted,
lives at 7 Elm Street this village and
possess every qualification
for a good Wife.
Then there’s the widower who fashioned an eternal Do Not Disturb sign on his wife’s grave:
Here lies my wife, let her lie,
Now she’s at peace and so am I.
Two pernicious parents in Vermont penned this dubious verse for their young son:
Here lies our darling baby boy
He never cries nor hollers
He lived for one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.
When I stumbled across this two-word epitaph in a Natchez cemetery, I had to find out more about the woman buried beneath a neglected headstone bearing only a first name:
In my book, The Haunting of Mississippi (Chapter 24), I delve into the story of poor Louise. It seems she was a prostitute who worked in Natchez-Under-the-Hill, the city’s red light district. In the spring of 1849, Louise fell ill. A local minister, Rev. Stratton, offered assistance. Louise accepted his offer of food and medicine, but would reveal only her first name. When she died, the reverend raised money for her burial and erected the simple headstone. Researched conducted by Don Estes, former director of the city cemetery, finally produced a last name-Leroy. Yet no one seems to be in any hurry to claim her as their own. If Louise’s feisty spirit could return and change anything, the first task on her list would likely be to erase her rather ignominious “Unfortunate” epitaph.
One gentleman from Topsfield, MA, made his feelings known and issued fair warning on his tomb:
Reader pass on and ne’er waste your time
on bad biography and bitter rhyme
For what I am this cumbrous clay insures
and what I was, is no affair of yours.
Nobel prize winning author William Faulkner was asked by a reporter what he would like for his obituary. Faulkner responded that he wanted the same one sentence for his obituary and his epitaph:
He made the books and he died.
Unfortunately, the prodigious author’s wishes were not carried out. On his tomb his widow Estelle had engraved
“Beloved, Go With God.” During my research on Faulkner and his fondness for ghost stories (The Haunting of Mississippi Chapter 14), I visited his grave in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Oxford, MS. One Faulkner fan left a beer bottle. Other tributes have included bottles of hard liquor as sustenance for Faulkner’s weary spirit. William Griffith, the curator of Faulkner’s home of Rowan Oak, is not surprised. “Sometimes fans leave a bottle of bourbon, but he preferred whiskey.”
Life and death for Henry Clay of Gilford, VT, were one and the same. The epitaph on his tomb reads:
My life’s been hard
And all things show it;
I always thought so
And now I know it.
Aaron Burbank of Connecticut was quite specific about the disposition of his remains. His relatives did their best. They carved his instructions on his tomb while ignoring his request:
Bury me not when I am dead.
Lay me not down in a dusty bed.
I could not bear the life down there
with earthworms creeping through my hair.
For others, an epitaph becomes a commentary on changing perceptions of who we are. When Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, a gay Vietnam Veteran (honored for his valor with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star) learned he had AIDS, he wrote his own epitaph. He wanted his grave to be a monument for all gay veterans:
When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men
and a discharge for loving one.
Winston Churchill chose:
I am ready to meet my maker,
whether my maker is prepared for
the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.
For his final curtain call, Mel Blanc, the “Man of 1000 Voices,” went with the sentiment of Bugs Bunny:
That’s All Folks!
So whether you choose to be buried or cremated, your final words matter. Think about someone wandering through a cemetery a hundred years from now. They stumble across your tombstone.
What will it say?
I’ve given it some thought. I think I would like to borrow the words of poet Flavia Wheedn:
Life is brief and very fragile.
Do that which makes you happy.
Perhaps, someone will smile as they read it. I’d love to hear your choices.