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What Will You Have on Your Tombstone?

By Peter Urs Bender |

Epitaphs are often like personal mission statements. Those who write them (and not just famous people engage in this exercise) are thinking hard about life and death. And about their own place in the universe at the moment.

I keep trying, and it certainly gives one pause. Sometimes I think I might like to have the titles of my books carved on my stone (so my estate could sell a few more copies). Other times I think, "He was born Swiss, but died Canadian" might be more appropriate.

What, for instance, would you make of the woman who wrote this epitaph? "Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgement." Or about another epitaph she suggested for herself: "Excuse my dust." Yes, she was a poet and humorist. Author Dorothy Parker wanted to be remembered for her tart tongue and sharp words.

And that's the key. How do you want to be remembered? To ask that question, you have to examine yourself and your life. You may not like the process, and you may never write an epitaph you like. But the process will help you focus on the image others have of you, and that you have of yourself. And thinking is good for us.

Here are a few epitaphs from some famous people who had done a lot of hard thinking—and one about an ordinary man.

  • Movie actress Gloria Swanson said, "When I die my epitaph should read: 'She Paid the Bills.' That's the story of my private life." If it sounds a little bitter, it was meant to be. All her working life she "paid the bills" for her profligate family, and though she tired of it, she never let them down.

  • W.C. Fields, never one to depart the stage without a last line, has a classic epitaph: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

  • And what about the epitaph that William Butler Yeats, one of the great poets of the 20th century, gave himself? "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by." Whatever else these words do, they set you thinking. And that's what Yeats always wished his audience would do, taking them far beyond the ordinary world through his poetry.

  • One of the driest I've ever heard about was carved on a stone in an Ontario pioneer cemetary, obviously not written by the incumbent. "Here lies John Brown, a farmer of renown. He felled a tree, then the tree felled him."

    The whole point of writing an epitaph is not to engage in a little grave humor, but to focus on how others see you. The picture might not be very pretty. There was nothing at all written on the stone Scrooge saw for himself in his third Christmas Eve vision. Gone and totally forgotten, was to be his fate if he did not change.

  • Likewise, Alfred Nobel, the great Swedish industrialist, saw himself described as a "munitions maker" in a premature and erroneous report of his death. He became determined to change that image. Today, we still remember him as the inventor of dynamite, but far more as the instigator of the Nobel Prizes, his living legacy.

There's still time. Try writing an epitaph for yourself. If you don't like the result, make the changes necessary…

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