How to Write Your Epitaph
By Lindsey Williams
I can't believe Dear Abby has retired from the advice
column business. I thought she was immortal.
She and I came aboard the daily Charlotte Sun 13 years
ago. She was the most widely syndicated columnist in the
country. I was retired from the Journalist Syndicate of
Ohio with its 24 clients and writing editorials for the
largest county newspaper to taper off a half-century of
writing to deadline.
"Abby" was short for Abigail Van Buren, a pen name owned
by her syndicate. Pen names are created to carry on a
popular column should the star die or - as now - retire.
Her real name is Pauline Phillips.
If you insist on knowing, my syndicate didn't create a
pen name for me. My logo was "World At Large." Sound
somewhat familiar? Good!
I have a soft spot in my heart for Abby. She once
complimented me in a letter to a mutual client - the
daily Jeffersonian at Cambridge, Ohio:
"While in Columbus, I discovered your jewel of a
newspaper. Thank the person who places the Dear Abby
column so conspicuously at the top of the page, run in
full and with the most current picture.
"Also congratulate Lindsey Williams on his provocative
piece on epitaphs. You could give most larger newspapers
a few lessons. I appreciate people who earnestly work to
put out a really good newspaper. The "Jeff" is one, and
I'm proud to be in it."
The Story Abby Liked
When I was a young journalism student, the first class
assignment was to write your own obituary.
It was a humbling experience. At that tender age there
was little in my life that seemed newsworthy. For a time
thereafter I was afraid I might die before I had earned
a decent death notice.
Sharing my concern was a fellow student and good friend
Johnny Nakamura. He was a Nisei, or second-generation
American of Japanese parents.
As a voluntary extension of our obituary exercise,
Johnny and I decided to write our own epitaphs. Our
objective was a life statement as brief and apt as
With the ego of youth, I came up with:
He Dared Much, Achieved Much.
Johnny chose an epitaph of just two words in a
remarkable, rhymed couplet:
Before long, Johnny and I cast our first votes and went
off to World War II. I returned home unharmed from the
Navy. Johnny was drafted into a Nisei (all
Japanese-Americans) battalion and was killed during the
landing at Salerno, Italy.
Over the years, I have often thought of the
self-epitaphs we composed in our youth. His was too apt,
mine too ambitious.
Since then, I have revised my epitaph so that it, also,
consists of only two words:
Though I dared less than I intended -- and achieved less
than I wanted -- I did my best and am satisfied.
To me, the trying is the important part. In trying, I
paid God's rent for my life.
Each person sees his or her role in life differently.
Rearing a useful family is primary. Winning fame and
fortune is noteworthy. Risking life for the liberty of
others is the ultimate contribution.
Whatever our mission, it would be easier to perceive if
carved on a rock as a personal memorial to carry with us
* * *
It is an ancient custom to summarize the meaning of a
person's life with a few well-chosen words that can be
inscribed on stone.
The earliest such epitaph was carved at Memphis, Egypt,
six thousand years ago. It memorializes the Pharaoh-God
He who gives right to him who loves, and gives wrong to
him who hates.
That great thought lives today in many variations and is
a principal tenet of civilized behavior.
The epitaph reached the height of literary style during
the Renaissance. Much thought went into the writing of
odes to deceased family members, friends and
So important was a good epitaph that famous writers and
poets derived considerable income composing them. One of
the outstanding epitaphs of this era was written by
Robert Burns for his friend William Muir:
If there's another world,
he lives in bliss.
If there is none,
he made the best of this.
Epitaphic literature reached its apex in the last
century when personally written - or chosen - messages
were popular. A particularly thought provoking
self-epitaph is carved into a tombstone at Rittman, Ohio
(where I lived at the time):
Remember me as
you pass by.
As I am now,
so you must be.
Prepare for death
and follow me.
Then there arose the flippant, insulting epitaph such as
Beneath these stones do lie,
back to back, my wife and I.
When the last trumpet the air fill,
if she gets up, I will just lie still.
Under the onslaught of such trivia, the epitaph
disappeared from the American scene. Grave markers
became merely a record of name and the dates of birth
and death. Gone are the contributions of epitaphs to the
individuality of death - a last opportunity of
communication between the dead and the living, the
sharing of human experience.
I am told by a manufacturer of grave markers, that there
is a revived interest in epitaphs.
Tombstones that incorporate messages in photographically
etched metal or laminated plastic are growing in
popularity. One company offers a marker that plays a
taped, spoken message of the deceased when you push a
button on the tombstone.
The plastic and electronic marvels of our age may be
ushering in a new emphasis on epitaphs. Yet, I fear they
will encourage long-winded dissertations that tend to
bury fundamentals under an avalanche of words.
As epitaphs become fashionable once more, I urge they be
(l) personally composed and (2) limited to the number of
words than can be carved on expensive granite in large
The writing of your own epitaph requires thought about
the good and useful things you ought to do to justify an
To best live so that we may die honored, we should write
our own epitaph early in life, making it as glowing and
self-laudatory as we dare.
Thus, we would be obligated to spend the rest of our
lives trying to live up to it.