My colleague Nardi Reeder Campion, who writes a column, “Everyday Matters,” that is widely read on the East Coast, sends me one describing a parlor game she calls “Write Your Own Epitaph.”
“You write down, in 50 words or less, what you would like to have on your tombstone. Then the leader reads the epitaphs aloud and the players have to guess who wrote them.”
Epitaphs are fun, and sometimes very revealing. I applaud the 50-word limit, since brevity is the soul of epitaphs, as well as of wit. Campion recalls the tombstone for a wife that said simply:
“I told you I was sick.”
That is in the genre of “the last word” epitaphs.
Campion also quotes one from the old Jaffrey, N.H., cemetery, near her home:
89 years, 5 months, 5 days
She done all she could
As Campion says, “None of us could ask for more.”
Considering his many achievements, Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph was extremely modest. His stone bears only four words and a date:
Benjamin and Deborah Franklin
Coincidentally, Fallon Evans, a professor of English, writes from Cambridge, England, where he is teaching a group from the Los Angeles Community Colleges this semester, about the language of an epitaph he found in a Victorian graveyard there.
of JOHN TAYLOR
Who departed this life Dec. 1, 1878
Goodbye dear wife and children all
I bid this world adieu
My troubles on this world were great
My pleasures few,
Also Charlotte, wife of the above
Who died Feb. 2, 1900,
Aged 82 yrs
“My complaint,” Evans says, “is about their use of the English language; one would think that they would have got the hang of it here, but no.” What he objects to is the word above . In fact, he argues, Taylor lies below , not above . I would say that depends on whether one is thinking of his bones or of his soul.
In a compendium of articles from Vanity Fair of the 1920s and 1930s I find two pages of epitaphs written for themselves by celebrities of those times.
Some are elegantly brief:
George S. Kaufman seemed to think of himself as below . His epitaph:
Over my dead body
The Marx Brothers concocted an epitaph for all four of them:
Here lie the
Four Marx Brothers
The first time they ever went out as a team
Zoe Akins simply listed the things she loved:
Old trees and places
Shaw and Keats,
Tea at Sherry’s,
Sunlight and air,
Dorothy Parker’s was brief and sassy, like almost everything she wrote:
Excuse my dust!
Wallace Irwin indulged in a flight of self-congratulation:
Here lies Wallace Irwin of genius
He flashed like a sun where there
might have been night;
Poet, philosopher, novelist, sage,
O! What adornments he lent to his age!
Gifts such as his cannot wither and die,
Though he has joined the immortals on high,
For his works glow like pearls on a Seven-foot shelf.
(Note, by the sexton: “He wrote this himself.”)
Alas, his flash has faded. I had to look him up in Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. Wallace Irwin (1875-1959), it says, was a newspaperman and writer of humorous verse and fiction. He won national fame with “Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum.” Sic transit gloria mundi.
Perhaps the only epitaph among these that is still quoted (except for “Excuse my dust!”) is the one W. C. Fields wrote for himself:
W. C. Fields
I’d rather be living in Philadelphia
Fields was born in Philadelphia, a city that he heartily disparaged in later life. His epitaph is often misquoted as “All things considered, I’d rather be living in Philadelphia.”
Like most epitaphs written in life, it did not survive him. His tomb in Forest Lawn bears only the simple inscription “W. C. Fields, 1880-1946.”
Ben Franklin’s epitaph too was not the one he had written for himself. It is inscribed in Ben’s script on copper at the Yale University Library, and reads:
The body of
B. Franklin, printer;
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more
In a new & more perfect edition,
corrected and amended
By the author.
Though I doubt that it will ever grace my tombstone, I offer as my epitaph the following:
Have a nice day