One of life’s great disappointments is death. There are others—like not winning Salesperson of the Year with the free cruise to Cancún—but death is right up there. You’re rolling along in your happy little life and THWACK!!!—some guy in a black suit is stuffing you in a coffin and making you look like you just spent two weeks in Florida. The good news is that it’s over. “It” meaning EVERYTHING. Burnt meat loaf, cat hair, hemorrhoids, elevator music, your brother-in-law, no toilet paper, telemarketers—it’s OVER! All of it! Now you can Rest in Peace. They’ll even put it on your tombstone: Rest in Peace. There’s only one question: Is that what you want on your tombstone? All your life they’ve been telling you what to do—fix the faucet, boost sales, get in line, don’t pick at it—and now you’re dead and they’re still telling you what to do. What if you don’t want to rest in peace? What if you want to play chess with Henry VIII or ask Napoleon: “Really—why the hand in the coat?” Don’t say nothing is carved in stone because your epitaph is For. Ev. Er. And you didn’t even get to write it. Talk about The Final Insult.
There are reasons for this, of course. People don’t like to think about death, least of all their own, and a tombstone, nice and polished as it may be, is a pretty strong hint in that direction. Even if we did contemplate our own mortality, what would we say? You don’t want to brag, but you don’t want to tear yourself down either. I mean, you’re dead. Give yourself a break. So how do you say just the right thing? You don’t. You let someone tell you to Rest in Peace.
You don’t want to brag, but you don’t want to tear yourself down, either. I mean, you’re dead. Give yourself a break.
Or worse. People who have known you all your life suddenly don’t know you when you’re dead. So they consult experts, like stoneletters.com, which advises people on heartfelt inscriptions: Keep it short, make it emotional and consider who you want the epitaph to speak to, which may be “a passerby or the loved one themselves.” I don’t know how you speak to yourself when you’re dead but I like the passerby idea. If it were me I’d say: “Don’t laugh. You could be next.” If you’re still stuck, the website gives you over 150 ideas. There’s always Beloved—or Dearly Beloved if you want to get wordy. You can also go with the somewhat optimistic Until We Meet Again. For those with a flair for the unusual, not to mention the unlikely, there’s Sleep Till Eternity (aren’t you already in eternity?), Once Met, Never Forgotten (never forgotten for what would be the question), and my favorite: Non hodie, Quod heri (I am not today what I was yesterday). Well, that’s for sure. And despite recommending brevity, the website offers this example from the English poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes: How many times do I love thee, dear?/Tell me how many thoughts there be/In the atmosphere/Of a new-fall’n year/Whose white and sable hours appear/The latest flake of Eternity/So many times do I love thee, dear. For this you either need a really big tombstone or a footnote at the bottom: Cont’d on adjacent grave.
I said people don’t write their own epitaphs but a few do. Merv Griffin, for instance, the famous American talk show host, wrote: I will NOT be right back after this message. And the American comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who insisted on being funny right till the end, dictated the inscription: There goes the neighborhood. Shree Rajneesh, the Indian spiritual teacher and mystic, requested that his headstone read: Never born, Never died: visited the planet Earth between December 11, 1931 and, January 19, 1990. Well … if you say so.
Here are some famous epitaphs that cannot be verified but I hope are real:
- Here lies my husband Tom—Now I know where he is at night.
- Here lies an atheist: All dressed up and no place to go.
- Wish you were here.
Of course, there’s a simple, easy answer to all this: cremation. All they can fit on an urn is your name and the price tag. John Cadley. 27.50, reduced from 50. I can live with that.
John Cadley is a former advertising copywriter, freelance writer and musician living in Fayetteville, New York.