Influences often converge in the background of my brain while I’m doing other things. Those who know me on Facebook know that I love holidays, I find them great external triggers for remembering many wonderful things we might not think about in our daily lives. Today. April 6th, is Plan Your Epitaph Day, and yesterday was my mother-in-law Charlotte’s her memorial service, as well as her birthday. (I mentioned her death a few weeks ago in my post about my letter.) As the holidays of each day in April roll out one after another, every day I think about my mother’s birthday coming up. My mother has been dead for decades now, and I still remember her birhday. (Heck, my Grandmother died in 1963, and I still remember her’s.) We carry our loved ones in our hearts and memories.
Of course, Mother’s birthday had an on-going lesson with it. She’d always found it irritating when some women she knew fussed and fumed about their children and husbands forgetting their birthdays, while not having reminded them of the date. “They SHOULD have remembered on their own!” was never a good excuse for her. So a few weeks before her birthday, she’d post a big notice on the refrigerator: “April 11 is Pat’s birthday! Join the thousands who know the joy of giving!” If any of US forgot her birthday, it wouldn’t be her fault! I’ve integrated the lesson that it’s better not let someone hurt you by accident when you can prevent it, if you could have, and let them, you are partially responsible.
That might be something that could have been mentioned in her eulogy. If you are lucky, there will be many examples of things you’ve shared with other people that they will take away with them so that your influence remains in lessons taught and passed on, and on, long after your grave has been forgotten. Then there are Obituaries- those lovely bits of fiction that serve as a reminder that someone has died. I think few are read by anyone who wasn’t checking to see who had died; so I’m always struck by how many suggest that the person died suddenly “surrounded by friends and family”. (What were they doing there if they didn’t expect him to die?) One doesn’t speak ill of the dead, so no matter what sort of jerk or bitch the dead person is, in the obituary they were pillars of the community, loving family, talented, wise, etcetera, etcetera. Eulogies and Obituaries are different literature from epitaphs. They are meant for the living. They reassure us that when we die, people are not going to be criticizing us when we have no ability to defend ourselves.
Epitaphs are meant only partly for the living. Certainly we may express our wishes to those who’ll be disposing of our corpses what we’d like them to do. But we can’t really force them to do it. In many cultures, funerals were as much to make sure that the ghost of the dead did not come back to mess around with the living as to celebrate their lives. Funeral rites were magick intended to keep the dead out of the land of the living. Likewise, offerings made to ancestors would benefit them, and inspire them to help you (another reason to speak well of them). There’s a social aspect as well, they are a message to the community that you do for your dead as they would expect; that’s reassuring. Having a tradition to follow is also helpful when your entire world has turned upside down (as it does with the lost of a parent or spouse), and you can’t really think until so much time has passed that you’d BETTER have dealt with the body long before then.
Our modern world has embraced the idea of a headstone for everyone, a thing that only the rich had in the past. A tree, or your name carved in wood would serve as well for the next generation- those who will remember you. But carved in stone, it clearly is meant to speak to those not yet born. What do we want someone passing by a hundred or a thousand years from now to know about us? (Or know what those who buried us thought of us?)
These days most people don’t even have epitaphs. We tend to restrict ourselves these days to the person’s name, and when he or she lived and died. Sometimes we add some sentiment, “Beloved Mother”, “He enriched our lives”, “She gave of herself”, “A Man of Talent and Courage”, or “A true friend to all”.
I’ve asked friends what they’d like to have on their stone. Response range from the jocular “I told you I was sick!” (attributed to Erma Bombeck), and “Open other end”, to traditional “Sum quid Eris” (I am what you will be) or “Im Kampf geboren, im Kampf gefallen” (in battle born, in battle slain), to to “She Loved”. I’ve often thought mine should be “I thought I had more time…” in that I always seem to plan far more than I can finish.
Many of my friends said “No stone!” We know that most of the millions who’ve lived on this earth have come and gone, known only to those who knew them. Others left monuments behind to make sure that the world knew that they’d been here, long after all those who’d known them have gone. We get our word Mausoleum from incredibly impressive tomb of Mausolus. All that effort and expense, and does it say more than “I had more money than anyone else”? The message of the Taj Mahal is that a man loved a woman, and didn’t want that love forgotten (but he didn’t get around to making his part of that monument). I am pretty sure that had the black version been finished across the reflecting pool from the white, most people would be taking a different message than they do with the single building.
The Egyptians embraced the idea that you CAN take it with you, but they hid their actual bodies and tombs to prevent grave robbers. Still, they built the Pyramids at Giza, and Deir el-Bahari basically leave the message to the world “I had money and power”. Or maybe “A woman can be as good a pharaoh as a man”, or “look what we can do when we work together”. Since it wasn’t written in so many words, if that was the message, we don’t know it. What was actually written on Egyptian monuments has, when compared with descriptions of the same from another point of view (for example, the Battle of Kadesh), lead us to believe that they were designed to convince coming generations of how incredible the Pharaoh was. This casts a question on the ones that only survive in the Egyptian version.
Which brings us back to our own epitaphs. Since our heirs will have the ultimate decision about whether they use our suggestions or not, to think about our epitaphs is to think about what we leave behind us after we die. It is to consider our own mortality, and the meaning of our personal life. Not what great philosophers thought life was about, but what we have left behind. We can carve our intent in stone, but we can be pretty sure that even the stone will wear away, and our memories fade. As in Shelly’s poem Ozymandius, we know that nothing we do will really last. But for a few centuries, perhaps, we can continue to reach out to those who wander by, and get them to wonder who we were, and what we did when we were yet alive.