“It is debated as to which was the greater challenge: being legally blind or developing the patience necessary when waging battle against the forces of MetroLift,” Della Jones wrote — in her newspaper obituary. It seems that Jones, who died at the age of 78, was blind and had to use Houston’s MetroLift. It is a public mini-bus service which picks up disabled individuals by appointment, and drives them to medical visits, etc. Often Jones had to wait a long time. Her obituary, or obit as we say in the trade, got the attention of the agency’s board of directors which ordered an investigation into the program.
So we have a recommendation: get your own obit and epitaph in order before you die, because it’s rather difficult to check facts in the funeral home, particularly if you’re in a closed casket. When I go, my obit will read simply “died,” or maybe just the date of my birth and death. Others prefer more flowery (OK, bad choice) words. Recently I spotted in my local paper: “Heaven is having a party today, because etc.” A former flight attendant departed “on silver wings, her final flight, first class, destination heaven.” My favorite was a few years ago when someone asked his friends, “in lieu of flowers, please vote for George W. Bush.” Why not join him? Dead people voted for LBJ. We rarely see an obit reading “finally got his due,” “bought the farm,” “croaked” or “is six feet under and none too soon.”
Obits in newspapers are ads paid for and written by the next-of-kin, and are often guesswork. The relatives cannot think clearly nor agree on much. “Uncle Egbert was 81 and was an accomplished pianist.” “No, he was 85 and played the accordion better than anyone, especially when he was sober.” They may include: “the cause of death will be determined by a grand jury.” So to keep your final resume honest, write it yourself. Include your war record but “received the Medal of Honor” is too easy to check. Just use “war hero,” “honored by six nations” and maybe “rejected naming the local VA hospital for him.” Put in “philanthropist” and “will be missed by millions.”
You can also use your obit to get back at those who treated you shabbily in life, like your great-nephew Snake who put you in that rotten nursing home and never visited. “I leave my estate estimated at $50 million to my great-nephew Snake with the understanding that he will share the fortune equally with his other relatives.” There is no fortune, of course, but for the rest of his life Snake will be badgered and sued, as his family thinks he’s keeping those millions to himself.
Now about your epitaph, which is Greek for “the end.” These days most people keep it simple, name, date of birth and death, maybe a military or Masonic logo. But if you check out the old tombstones, which can be hard to read, you will see all sorts of Biblical quotes, pictures of angels, trumpets. A few ancient epitaphs of note: Thomas Jefferson wrote his own: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” He never mentioned that he was also president. Young Ben Franklin wrote his own parting words: “Cover of an Old Book, Its Contents torn Out And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies Here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be Lost; For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More In a New and More Elegant Edition Revised and Corrected By the Author.” Ben must have grown more concise in his old age, because his actual tombstone reads: “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin: 1790” Sir Christopher Wren designed London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and is entombed there with the inscription: “If you require a monument, look around.” The words are actually in Latin, but there may be a few who are a little rusty beyond e pluribus unum (out of many, whatever).
Outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow wanted to be buried together in a Dallas cemetery but weren’t. Bonnie’s tombstone reads in part: “Outlaw, bank robber and partner of Clyde Barrow.” Clyde’s epitaph doesn’t mention Bonnie, just, “Gone but not forgotten.” Another outlaw, Jesse James, was shot in the back by a gang member. James’ epitaph contains this line: “Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.” Another Tombstone, the town, has a Boot Hill that contains this remembrance over the grave of a Wells Fargo agent, Lester Moore, who was shot dead by an irate customer: “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44, no Les, no more.” Also in Boot Hill Cemetery lies George Johnson. He bought a stolen horse in good faith but the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. They realized their mistake, but by then it was too late for Johnson. So his epitaph reads: “Here lies George Johnson, hanged by mistake 1882. He was right, we was wrong, but we strung him up and now he’s gone.”
Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s grave reads, in Gaelic, “I told you I was ill.” From a Thurmont, Maryland, cemetery tombstone with no name: “Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go.” English-French writer Hilaire Belloc chose: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said: ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'” I had heard about a Scottish epitaph, “Here lies the body of Mary McQueen, she was a virgin at seventeen, a remarkable thing in Aberdeen.” When I found myself in Aberdeen, I went looking for the epitaph in an old cemetery. Couldn’t find the inscription. I asked the caretaker who said lots of people came looking for it, but there was no such inscription. Another great story shot down by the facts.
Ashby lies at email@example.com