At 90, Helen Hayes is still winning awards. Upon accepting another honor from the entertainment industry recently, she revealed to the audience her choice of an epitaph.
Hayes wants her tombstone to reflect her many triumphs. She likes a line from the play "Victoria Regina," in which a man breaks through the police lines at Queen Victoria's 90th birthday celebration and shouts, affectionately but irreverently, "Go it, old girl. You've done well."
Epitaphs are part of the human tendency to sum things up, to try to put things in perspective. Technically, they are brief inscriptions suitable for engraving on a tomb or monument, but the term extends to other writing that would be suitable as an inscription.
Inevitably, the subject of epitaphs brings out a refreshing irreverence in people who are still very much alive. At a press conference, Johnny Carson was once asked what he wanted his epitaph to be. His reply: "I'll be right back."
W.C. Fields said he would like his tombstone to read: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
Lionel Barrymore's proposed epitaph was, "He played everything but the harp."
One of Dorothy Parker's famous witticisms was "Excuse my dust," her suggested inscription for her cremated remains. (Ironically, her ashes languished in a New York lawyer's office for many years before finding a permanent home in Baltimore at the national headquarters of the NAACP.)
And let's not forget the legendary epitaph for a head waiter: "By and by God caught his eye."
Stroll through a cemetery -- especially an older one -- and you'll find that these witticisms are in fact rare. When the time comes, most people's taste in inscriptions runs more to noble words, nostalgic sentiments or quotations from scripture.
The earliest surviving epitaphs were inscribed on sarcophagi by the ancient Egyptians. Later, the Greeks and Romans became fond of them and turned the task of composing epitaphs into something of an art form. In Rome, epitaphs were taken quite seriously. The epitaph on the tomb of a common man often began with "Sta, viator!" (Stop, traveler!) A rich man's epitaph often included the wish, "Let my will, not reason, prevail."
During the Renaissance, there was renewed interest in literary epitaphs. Latin was often used for its economy of expression, but many of these artful inscriptions translate concisely into English as well. One of the great epitaphs from English literary figures is Samuel Johnson's summing up of his friend Oliver Goldsmith: "He touched nothing he did not adorn."
But epitaphs do not have to be literary gems to convey the sense of a life well lived. One of the most touching epitaphs I've seen was one I came upon in a 19th century cemetery. A tombstone over a grave toward the corner of a family plot carried a woman's first and last names and the dates of her birth and death. Underneath were the words "Dear Aunt Lina."
Somehow those simple words sparked my imagination as most epitaphs do not. They told nothing about this woman except that in her life she earned the enduring affection of at least one person. When all our vanities are peeled away, what achievement is more valuable than that?
What would you like your epitaph to be? Have you seen an especially moving inscription? A humorous one? Send your comments to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.
Universal Press Syndicate