Thoughts for the ages?
Or maybe one last wisecrack?
By DAVID ZINMAN
The other day, I got to thinking about epitaphs--words engraved on a gravestone that sum up a life or make a commentary on it. What would mine say, I wondered--if anything?
A recent visit to the cemetery triggered that thought. My b.w. Sara and I went there to find out if there is room for two more on her family burial lot. Instead of leaving that job to our children, we decided to do it ourselves.
A four-block walk from our home took us to picturesque Lakeside Cemetery. There, we met George Goldfinch, the funeral director's son, and he measured off the area. He confirmed there was, indeed, enough space for us to spend eternity together. We will lie in the shade of an old cedar tree in the six-acre graveyard in Conway, S.C. Sara was born in the little Southern town--about 15 miles from Myrtle Beach-- where we now spend winters.
It was in 1913 that Sara's great-grandfather paid $10 for the family lot--it has room for 12 graves--a site that would run about $12,000 today.
What interested me most about the 133-year-old cemetery were the epitaphs. Etched in the gravestone of Sara's grandmother, Sarah Melvina Dozier Moore (1882-1944), were the simple words: "She hath done what she could."
The vast majority of graves, like the tombstone of Robert Bethea Scarborough, South Carolina's lieutenant governor at the end of the 19th century, bore no epitaphs. But those that did had poignant inscriptions.
"If tears could build a stairway and memories a ladder, I'd walk up to heaven and bring you home again," read the words on the grave of Andrea Lee Holliday. She died last year at age 18.
On the ground nearby, somebody had left an unsigned poem. "When you went away, you took with you my night and day," it read. "...But I have come to thank God that I have you at least in my starry night and somewhere over the rainbow."
The epitaph of Ellen Powell Norton (1850-1909) said: "God's finger touched her and she sleeps, Sleep sweetly, tender heart, in peace. Sleep, holy spirit, blessed soul, while the stars burn, the moons increase, and the great ages onward roll."
A quotation from Shakespeare became a tribute to Julian Ovando Norton (1871-1935). "His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all, 'This was a man.'" (Marc Antony speaking about Brutus in "Julius Caesar.")
Carved in the granite headstone of Ann Lawrie Sessions (1897-1911) are the words: "Farewell, we shall meet again."
Here are some others:
"God's greatest gift returned to God. Our mother." Ada Edge Barker (1889-1961).
"What we keep in memory is ours unchanged forever." Wilbur D. Barker (1917-1937).
"Gone to be with Jesus and Moma." Rufus Marion Gore (1955-2000).
"Though he slay me, Yet will I trust him." Hermon Oliver Marlowe (1903-1928).
"In heaven, there is one more angel." Henry Walsh Marlowe (1961-1965).
"In the service of his country, Lost in the North Sea," Lt. Edward Robertson Norton (1920-1943).
When I got home, I decided to do some research and find out what some famous--and not so famous people--had inscribed on their graves
One of the most memorable epitaphs: The lines on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. "Here rests in honored glory an American solider known but to God."
Also touching were the patriotic words on the grave of the British poet Rupert Brooke. "If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England."
On Shakespeare's grave at Stratford-on-Avon, these words are written: "Good friend for Jesus sake forebear, To dig the dust enclosed here; Bless be the man who spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."
Belle Starr, the flamboyant western outlaw, had this thought on her tombstone: "Shed not for her the bitter tear, Nor give the heart to vain regret. Tis but the casket that lies here, The gem that filled it sparkles yet."
Some took death less seriously. On the grave of Margaret Daniel in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va., are the words: "She always said her feet were killing her."
I liked the saucy suggestion of the writer H.L. Mencken.: "If after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl."
Some, like the novelist Virginia Woolf, remained defiant as they departed this mortal coil. "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!"
But Frank Sinatra's was optimistic. "The best is yet to come."
Dean Martin's grave carries the first four words of one of his signature songs:
"Everybody loves somebody sometime."
Other interesting epitaphs:
George Burns and Gracie Allen: "Together again."
Edgar Allen Poe: "Quoth the Raven: nevermore."
In Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, the words "That's all, folks," are inscribed on the grave of Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny and other animated cartoon characters."
"She did it the hard way." Those words are the final tribute to Bette Davis in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
A lawyer's tombstone in England: "Sir John Strange. Here lies an honest man. And that is Strange."
Often, epitaphs exaggerate a politician's place in history. The winner hands down is Huey Long. The Kingfish, as the Louisiana demagogue liked to call himself, lies beneath an heroic bronze statute of himself that stands before his 34-story State House in Baton Rouge. At the base of his statue are the words:
"Here lies Louisiana's great son, Huey Pierce Long, unconquered friend of the poor who dreamed of the day when the wealth of the land would be spread among all the people."
So, after all that, how should my own epitaph read? I think I would want something about my years as a newspaperman. Maybe the words: "A scribbler who searched for The Truth." On the other hand, that sounds a bit like the Kingfish's tribute.
© 2002 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The cartoon is from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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