We all know someone who insists on getting the last word, particularly in a disagreement. Or perhaps you are that someone. We say our piece and then move on. But there are folks who take the need for having the final word to a whole new level. In advance of their death they arrange for a particular passage to be inscribed on their headstone, depriving any and all of a comeback.
Typically, tombstone epitaphs convey basic information such as the dates of one’s arrival and departure. It is also common to see the deceased’s worldly role inscribed on the headstone: beloved wife, mother, father, etcetera. These final—and lasting—words range from sobering to sentimental to humorous.
Not surprisingly, when such simplicity seems inadequate, more effusive final thoughts are frequently penned by famous authors. You know, the folks who spend a lifetime telling us what they think. Why let a thing like death hush them?
If you enjoy strolling through old cemeteries and reading the occasional eloquent epitaph as well as the ordinary, you’re not alone. There’s even a name for these folks: gravers. There are tombstone tourists who plan vacations around the resting places of Hollywood stars, while military gravers track down the government-issue markers of fallen soldiers. And nowadays, with the growing popularity of genealogy websites, genealogical gravers fill blank spots in their family tree with information gleaned from far-flung headstones.
In the opening scene of the 1979 movie Wise Blood, one of the last films of John Huston, the camera slowly pans over a decrepit cemetery and lingers over two headstones. One says, “Gone to become an angle,” with the misspelling of angel set in stone, literally. The other has a child’s toy telephone attached to the stone, with the receiver off the hook, and the words “Jesus Called” engraved on the stone. This cemetery would indeed be a treat for any graver.
So for us armchair gravers, let’s first take a peek at some of the more eloquent epitaphs (some authors you’ll easily guess):
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake for beare
To dig the dust enclosed heare;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Free at last. Free at last.
Thank God Almighty
I’m Free at last.
—the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents turned out
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here, food for worms,
Yet the work shall not be wholly lost;
For it shall, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new, more beautiful edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.
Quoth the Raven,
—Edgar Allen Poe
Warm summer sun shine kindly here
Warm southern wind blow softly here.
Green sod above, lie light, lie light.
Good night, dear heart, good night, good night.
—Mark Twain (on the tombstone of his young daughter)
And this heart-warming tribute from the great romantic poet Lord Byron:
Near this spot are deposited
The remains of one who possessed
Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man,
Without his Vices.
This praise, which would be
If inscribed over human ashes,
Is but a just tribute
to the Memory of Boatswain,
Now, on the lighter side . . .
By and by
God caught his eye.
—epitaph on a waiter
The defense rests.
—epitaph on a lawyer
Stranger, Approach this spot with gravity.
Joseph Bradley is filling his last cavity.
—epitaph on a dentist
Excuse my dust.
—epitaph by American author Dorothy Parker
He had his beer
From year to year,
And then his bier had him.
—epitaph on a drunkard
Here under the sod and under the trees
Is buried the body of Solomon Pease.
But in this hole lies only his pod.
His soul is shelled out and gone to God.
—epitaph in an English burial ground
All dressed up and no place to go.
—epitaph on an atheist
And from one of the many boot hill cemeteries in the American West:
Here lies Lester Moore:
Four slugs from a forty-four.
No Les. No More.
Here lays Butch.
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.
Here lies a man named Zeke,
Second-fastest draw in Cripple Creek.
And an epitaph on an auctioneer:
In closing, some actual courtroom death humor:
Q. Now, Mrs. Johnson, how was your first marriage terminated?
A. By death.
Q. And by whose death was it terminated?
* * *
Q. Mrs. Smith, you do believe that you are emotionally unstable?
A. I used to be.
Q. How many times have you committed suicide?
A. Four times.
* * *
Q. Were you acquainted with the decedent?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Before or after he died?
* * *
Q. Doctor, would you please tell the jury how many autopsies you’ve performed on dead people?
A. All my autopsies have been on dead people.
And that, good people, is the last word.
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