Do you ever wonder what they’ll write on your tombstone? No, I’m not in one of my morbid moods. I have often wandered through cemeteries looking at names, dates and the occasional epitaph, just to see who’s there. That’s why people put such information on stone, after all, to tell those who come after something about this person that they’ll never meet this side of Glory. It’s the epitaphs that were always the most fascinating and, of course, now-a-days you can find slews of them (like everything else) on the Internet. Some have clearly been written by the deceased and others are by those left behind. “BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER,” and “IN LOVING MEMORY” always seem popular. “GONE FISHIN’,” and “JUST RESTING MY EYES,” (or some variation of that) are also often seen. “HE LOVED BACON Oh, and his wife and kids too,” was, I sincerely hope, a comment on someone’s sense of humor —likewise, “IF YOU’RE CLOSE ENOUGH TO READ THIS, GET OFF OF ME.” One of the clearest and most powerful statements about successfully keeping a family together through life’s agitations that I’ve ever read has to be, “RAISED FOUR, BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS WITH ONLY ONE BATHROOM AND STILL THERE WAS LOVE.”
It has been said of the best epitaphs that “the beauty of the epitaph is that it sums up the life and the work at once and ties them together.” One of these is Virginia Woolf’s, “”DEATH IS THE ENEMY. AGAINST YOU I WILL FLING MYSELF, UNVANQUISHED AND UNYIELDING, O DEATH. THE WAVE BROKE ON THE SHORE. I ALWAYS ENJOY A CORONA WHEN AT THE BEACH,” which certainly captures her bipolar problem. The point is that this form of communication can introduce us to a person years, decades, even centuries after their death. As most people never get a biography, epitaphs can connect us, the ordinary people, across the years. If you don’t go through cemeteries to read the headstones, you’re letting your end of the bargain down.
As a person who wishes to be cremated, I know I will never have a headstone. Still, I sometimes wonder what someone would write on one if I did have it. Because I am in the twilight of a very ordinary life, I might get stuck with “KURT WHO?,” or “HERE LIES GOOD OLD WHAT’S HIS NAME. HE MOST LIKELY WAS KNOWN FOR SOMETHING,” though maybe not. The saving grace would not be that I’ve done anything worthy of being recorded in stone but that I’m related to a lot of sensitive people who are very fine writers and couldn’t pass up the mental exercise of coming up with something better. I did stumble across an epitaph recently that I certainly wouldn’t mind having on a stone of mine. It was in a book by Jim Butcher and was the genesis of this particular thought train. In the book, one of the characters was given a grave plot by his enemies, with a headstone already carved and installed. The epitaph on the headstone read, “HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.”
Now, the guy who received the gift did not find himself in any immediate need of a headstone by the end of the book (though many of the thoughtful enemies did.) But, considering that the character is reoccurring, you just know that one day he will need the headstone and that, likely, they won’t have to change the epitaph. In a way, his goal has become to be worthy of the death that has been foretold for him. Having a headstone as motivation might be a case of cart-before-the-horse, but it does allow us to view our lives from a different perspective. In a fit of depression, you may wonder what in the world difference what you do will make a hundred years from now. Well, what you do makes a difference, if for no other reason, because some loud-mouth with a chisel may blab the essence of you all over the future.
We have lost several members of our church family in the past few weeks. This particular group have several things in common. They each found ways to live their long lives with dignity, despite the various hardships and obstacles they found in their ways. To the end, they always had love for others rather than pity for themselves. They were, each of them, good and faithful servants of God and each fought the good fight right to the last. Each of them died while doing the right things. To my thinking, there can be no better epitaph.
~ Kurt Hendrix
Originally published in the Wingate UMC newsletter for August 2015.
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