There used to be a billboard for a Houston-based cemetery memorial company on which was a photo of a grave marker and the tagline: “Will you be remembered?” At age 17, I was so offended that I wrote a letter to the company and chastised them for suggesting that the dead wouldn’t be remembered unless their graves were marked with one of the company’s headstones. They wrote back, admitting that it was gauche and should have read “How will you be remembered?” and invited me to tour the factory where they engraved the stones.
I’ve been fascinated by epitaphs ever since.
Today is National Epitaph Day, established by epitaph guru Lance Hardie to coincide with Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that honors the souls of the departed. Hardie’s waggish proposition is that a forgettable gravestone is a fate worse than death.
Consider this one found in the Sheldon Cemetery in Sheldon, VT:
“Unknown man shot in the Jennison & Gallup Co.’s store while in the act of burglarizing the safe Oct. 13, 1905. This stone bought with money found on his person.”
But seriously: imagine your whole life, recalled in just a few lines of prose. Your values, your loves, your accomplishments, your truths: they take a lifetime to create and a moment to memorialize. At life’s end, you will have no control over how you are remembered. But while you are living, you do.
We all live in the neighborhood of ourselves, but not always from our true center—mostly because we haven’t examined ourselves from the perspective of our survivors. Trying to distill our legacies into just a few words may help narrow the gap between the dreams of ourselves and the lives we’re actually living. Years ago I interviewed Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSINGS and KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM, about the value of writing our own epitaphs. She said, “It offers a moment of awareness that makes it possible to make better choices and live more consciously.”
If you were to write your epitaph today, what would you say? What statement about your own life would you like to have written in stone? Most importantly, if you could write your ideal epitaph, would it change the way you live now?
“The land I cleared is now my grave. Think well, my friends, how you behave.”
(from a 1829 grave stone in Marlborough, New Hampshire)