Saturday, March 26, 2011

Last Writes

The following is draft 1, section 1 of an extended piece I'm doing on epitaphs. We've had a publisher sniffing around about publishing Mad as the Mist and Snow, which has prodded this effort. Keep watching. Hopefully, we'll test out more sections in the future.

Getting in the Last Word

It’s your last chance. Your absolutely last chance to say anything to the world. Amazingly, many—perhaps most—chose to ignore it; they say nothing. Not just the people who cremate themselves and get stuck on mantles or dumped into rivers, but many people who opt for cemetery burials are happy enough to settle for names and dates only, please. To be sure, lawn cemeteries and columbaria limit the opportunity for expression, but even folks purchasing uprights are often as not satisfied with “Never forgotten.” Oh yeah? Then how come there are no flowers on your grave, huh? So, thank God for all those folks who take one last chance to get in a piece of advice, a bon mot, or a simple little flippancy.

Epitaphs come in all shapes and sizes dependent upon whim and financial wherewithal. They cover the gamut of human expression. They have changed through time. As in all phases of cemetery adornment, the epitaph has undergone a great expansion in its role as a reflection of the deceased. I haven’t in this initial parsing selected for historical distribution of epitaph styles—I’ll leave that for another time—but even so I ended up with eleven categories; and that’s with leaving the vast majority of the collection undistributed. I have mostly ignored, for example, home-grown poetry and poetic allusions. No “professional” category. No tributes. None, in other words, of the categories which hold the largest number of exhibits.

Of the resulting categories, some I fairly well ignored, but of what was left—the easy pickings, as it were—there were plenty of nuggets. The Bible, needless-to-say, provided a good number of epitaphs. Certainly no other book is in the running. Shakespeare as a lump comes in a measly second place; although, all in all, more people choose non-Biblical quotes than Biblical for their tombstones (42 to 30, in this case), not including six for the Bard.

A few categories should be wiped out or merged, but the big ones stick out like ill-packed suitcases with all manner of wardrobe trailing from their seams. If one surfs the Net in search of epitaph collections, one finds there are, essentially, only two categories out there: celebrities and humor (if humor can contain the bizarre). Rodney Dangerfield’s “There goes the neighborhood” is a classic example of a tombstone covering both. What differentiates people who write amusements on their headstone versus those who offer uplifting advice or tout their glories is well beyond this humble researcher and appears to present some research difficulties. In this glance at the last writes, we’ll cast a broad net.

Indeed, one of the first difficulties is in determining who wrote an epitaph: the deceased or the survivors? In some cases, such as where the erection of the tombstone precedes the death of the future occupants, it’s usually evident that the epitaph is the choice of the pre-deceased (can I say that?). Likewise, monuments erected long after a person’s death are usually inscribed with words of the monument erectors, not the person being glorified. In between are a lot of gray areas. For the most part, though, I think people choose their own epitaphs. At least the ones in this collection; and I suspect this collection would be mimicked across most of the country. I think people like to feel they have at least a little bit of their death under control; that it’s their death and not that of an unknown undertaker or priest. All of us, I think, feel a touch like William Hurt’s mother, Claire Luce (1923-1971, Fort Harney Cemetery) , whose sarcophagus reads: “Don’t coddle me into the grave. I’m/ Going to march into it. I’m a man,/ After all.” We want the memory of dignity.

Whoever writes an epitaph, it remains a way for the deceased to speak from beyond the grave, to maintain contact with the living. Once a sentiment is chiseled into stone, one can have reasonable hopes of it surviving for a couple hundred years, whether it makes sense or not. If you have something to say, this is the time to say it.

A small word of warning:

The epitaph database doesn’t stop at the Oregon border. For that matter, neither does the photographic database, but we won’t get into that. But when I sifted the database for epitaphs fitting the categories of interest, I just took them as they came sans regard for origins, provided they came from the Oregon Territory; I’ve eschewed Texas and Wisconsin. I didn’t think you’d want to miss a side-slapper just because it came from Weiser. Think of it as a nod to the cultural unity of the Territory.

Die Laughing

The line between humor and inexplicability is thin. It’s hard sometimes to tell if one is laughing because an epitaph is funny or because one is wondering, “What the hell?” (Which is precisely what Glen Meyers [1980-1999] of the aforementioned Weiser, Fairview Cemetery, ID, said: “What the hell…?,” which he preceded with “Where the sidewalk ends…/ True life begins.” Mr. Meyers was fond of ellispses.) Humor can be intentional—“Gone for the bait” (Mildred Long, 1931-1993, Cliffside Cemetery); inadvertent—“Stan Shattuck was/ hung by mistake” (IOOF Cemetery, Coburg); or ambiguous—“They said she was too different/ and she wrote too many tunes” (Alice Spear, 1923-1989, Coos River Cemetery). It can be gentle—“Raised four beautiful daughters/ with only one bathroom and/ still there was love” (Theodore, 1931-2008, & Nedine, 1932-1997, Barnhouse, Mitchell Cemetery); or irreverent—“I’m going to miss me” (Porter Payne, 1921-2005, Union Cemetery, Union).

In some cases it takes two to make a joke. Couples coordinate their epitaphs. Herman (d. 1986) and Agnes (d. 1992) Baxter, buried in Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery, joined their thoughts in death:

His: “On the Highway to heaven”
Hers: “Drive like hell and you’ll get there.”

The Lehmans of Havurah Shalom, Seymour (d. 1990) and Edith (d. 1994) supplied their own couplet:

His: “You’re on your own”
Hers: “Not any more”

Sometimes funny borders on patronizing. What are we to make of Mary Ogden (1920-2000, Odd Fellows Cemetery, Dayton) who leaves us with “It’s your mother”? Don’t we feel she’s still standing over us watching our every move? Is our curfew still in force? Surely she’s friends with the anonymous person in Coles Valley Cemetery, who pontificates, “Blessed are those who clean up.” Avoid their coffee klatches on Monday mornings. In such cases, the epitaph slumps towards the kvetch. Consider the lament of Edith Porter (d. 2000, Kesser Israel Cemetery): “I have three wonderful sons, It’s too bad you couldn’t keep me a little longer.” Guilt from the beyond. Or the more general observation from Gertie Bunnel (1912-1983, Estacada IOOF Cemetery): “Who should live so long”? Or the anonymous grumble from Lone Fir, Portland, “This wasn’t in my schedule book,” which isn’t dissimilar from Jan Peckam’s (1946-1999, Union Cemetery, Cedar Mills) irritation: “It’s always something.” How about the light-weight puffery of Patricia (1928-2003, Lone Oak Cemetery, Stayton): “I’d rather be shopping at Nordstoms”? There are two other “I’d rather be shopping[s],”—no Nordstoms—in the database. Tombstones mentioning corporations are uncommon but not unheard of. Robin Boon (1913-2004, Aumsville Cemetery) brings us another example: “With the Lord, enjoying a good cup of Yuban.” Does Yuban know they have this free advertising? And is Robin so sure she’s drinking it with the Lord? There may be more hot water elsewhere.

One of the more entertaining and quizzical “corporate” epitaphs doesn’t even mention the company or product. All it gives us is the first line of its advertising jingle, one that has already disappeared from the media world long ago. Eino Kangas (1932-1994, Union Cemetery, Union) keeps Alka-Seltzer alive with:

Plop plop
fizz fizz
Oh what a relief it is

Advice doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a kvetch. The Dohrns of Ocean View Cemetery Richard (1940-205) and Colleen (b. 1941) urge us that “Life is uncertain, eat dessert first”; and Mathew Beecher (1952-2001, Tualatin Plains Presbyterian Church Cemetery) quotes Yogi Berra, who opined, “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise they/ won’t go to yours.”

Epitaphs are, of course, as much a reflection of popular culture as anything else. Just because one is going to be dead forever doesn’t mean their sentiments can’t be topical. Arguably, the currently most popular epitaph flippancy, “I told you I was sick,” can be found in our locale on Gloria Martin’s (1926-2002) grave in Robert Bird Cemetery. Indeed, the catch phrase is a popular resource for epitaphs. Charlo (love that name) Dick (1953-2006, Brainard Cemetery) uses a line I’ve seen attributed to an atheist, although I wouldn’t go that far: “All dressed up and no place to go.” Dawn VocĂ© (1954-2004, Stearns Cemetery) leaves us with the amusing but ambiguous “You put your right foot in”; while Kristie Pergin (1976-1992, Woodville Cemetery) assures us that “The phone must be for you.” What do all these people mean? If you want ambiguous, ponder Barbara Lockwood (1944-2007, Joseph Cemetery): “Barbara stopped here.” Timothy Wilke (1973-2004, Finley-Sunset Hills Cemetery) summed it up best: “Don’t cry Mom/ I’m fine/ It’s only money.” And in case you think you escaped, Arthur Conrad (1947-198, Mountain View Cemetery, View, WA) leaves us with a cheery, “See you soon, maybe tomorrow…”

Patriotism is rarely amusing, but loyalties can put a smile on ones face and they certainly speak to regionalism. David Williams (b. 1922, Phillips Cemetery) may be buried in Portland exurbia, but his heart remains “For God, Country, and Old Wazzu”; Wazzu being the affectionate handle for Washington State University. Other epitaphs evoke the spirit of place indirectly. The epitaph for Claude (b. 1922) and Frances (1923-1998) Friend in Scottsburg Cemetery could have come from anywhere, but its sentiment is surely rural and even forested: “Tried to leave the woodpile a little higher than we found it.” Trees come into play in the epitaph for Jim Everts (1940-1999, Aumsville Cemetery), whose epitaph, “Tree hugger/ ‘left town’ 1999,” implies a conservationist bent. And this anonymous epitaph from Long Creek Cemetery which covers place, profession, and family

Here lies a town girl who became
a ranchers [sic] wife and right hand
A passionate mother. A lover of
A promoter of womens [sic] education
and a shopper
Knew I would be asked
Yes Honey I will get the gate

I’d be remiss if I finished this section without mentioning another anonymous soul, this time from Condon Cemetery who moved right into the denial stage: “Do not disturb/ Taking a nap”; unlike the realist Fred Barnes (1913-1993, Ridgefield [WA] Cemetery) who admitted:

I have made many trades in my life,
But I think I went in the hole on this one.

Yet if one wanted regionalism, ambiguity, poetic allusions, and humor all in one package, one could do worse than visit Edward Nielsen (1961-1997, Bay Center Cemetery, WA) whose epitaph reads, “On the edge of passing days”; yet continues on the back of the stone to read:

I rather thought Paradise would be like a library

Times Arrow
Decendant [sic] of Chief Huckswelt
Weelapa Tribe of the Chinook’s [sic]

Death will always come out of season

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