Since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief...
I hitchhiked around England one summer. I thumbed my way to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's hometown, where I toured his house and sought out his grave in Holy Trinity Church. I wanted to make a rubbing of the inscription on his tombstone. The churchmen would not allow access to the grave, but for a few dollars, they would do a rubbing and mail it to me, they said. Ordinarily, I would have taken the offer as a scam but, coming from clerics, I decided to chance it. The black-on-white rubbing showed up in Utah two months later, and I had it framed. It has been hanging on my wall so long that I don't pay it much attention. This is Shakespeare's epitaph:
Good friend for Jesus sake forebear,
To digg the dvst enclosed here.
Bleste be ye man yt spares these stones,
And cursed be he yt moves my bones.
I have to say that I don't find much wit in the four lines. I wonder what was on his mind when he wrote the epitaph.
Epitaph keeps company with obituary. Both are neglected literary forms, I think. Nowadays, obituaries tend to be formulaic, and epitaphs are as rare as a rousing Irish wake. I walked around the Mount Olivet Cemetery on a day so dreary only the resident deer were milling about the graves. In a brief tour, I saw more photographs on gravestones than epitaphs. By the time the Millennial generation is shopping for burial plots, there will probably be gravestones capable of projecting holographic selfies.
Obituaries are biographical in detail, laudatory in tone. Epitaphs are little gems—concise and aphoristic. Some are religious. Some are literary. Some, witty. I like the funny ones. Even the hoariest one of all—"I told you I was sick"—always makes me smile. I am more a student of obituary than most, and as much as I appreciate the rare, well-crafted obituary, epitaph has more appeal. That it is chiseled into granite gives epitaph an edge, of course. Poetic brevity is another advantage over the well-worn phrases of obituaries published in daily newspapers. In a few, well-chosen words, a years-long personal story is concluded. I like poet Robert Frost's:
And were an epitaph to be my story
I'd have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.
Epitaphs can also be public and didactic as the inscription on the World War II Kohima Memorial illustrates:
When you go home,
Tell them of us and say,
"For their tomorrow,
We gave our today."
Rhyming lines make a lasting impression because they are easy to remember. So are the funny ones (even if they never actually make it to a gravestone.) I am thinking of Dorothy Parker's "Excuse my dust" or W.C. Fields' "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." While Johnny Carson reigned supreme among late-night talk-show hosts, someone asked what he would like to have as his epitaph. He thought for a moment, then said, "I'll be right back!"
I read an interview with the handsome, blue-eyed actor Paul Newman just before he died. In it, he joked about the famously good looks that Lee Strasberg, the founder of Method Acting, said Newman used as a crutch. "He would have been as great an actor as Marlon Brando if he hadn't been so handsome," he said. Newman made light of the criticism with this tongue-in-cheek epitaph: "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown." In the same vein, Phil Collins said his epitaph could well be, "He came. He wrote 'In the Air Tonight.' He died." In his poem, "Epitaph," John Stone provides this one for an auctioneer:
Just before the Coffin-Lidder
nails the eternal ceiling on,
tell the next-to-highest-bidder
I am going, going, gone.
Who writes epitaphs? Either you compose your own, or someone writes one for you. The latter is risky; the former takes time and reflection. Mortuaries provide fill-in-the-blank obituary worksheets to grieving relatives, but the worksheet makes no mention of epitaph. I doubt most estate planners can spell the word. The "how to write an epitaph" websites are pedestrian.
You would think epitaph would be popular especially for those in the Twittersphere. I can imagine a spirited exchange of #myepitaph tweets in the attempt to write the best, 140-character swansong. Some small effort has been made in this regard. More than 25,000 people liked this tweet: "If your grave doesn't say 'rest in peace' on it, you are automatically drafted into the skeleton war." I found it artless. The best tweets are short, clever and conversational, according to Eric Jarosinski, a self-described Twitter aphorist interviewed by The New Yorker. It is like "writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn't exist. ... What you really need to do in a cartoon is set someone up for the moment that comes next, after that frame, but is not depicted," he said. If my life is a succession of cartoon panels (by Gary Larson, if I have a choice), then the penultimate one sets up the epitaph, much as the straight man sets up the riposte in a comedy shtick. What soulful, witty words appear in my final panel? I am thinking of the signature closing of 1950s Looney Tunes cartoons when Porky Pig, voiced by Mel Blanc, stutters, "That's all, folks!"
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