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Rivers are Damp: On the Art of Epitaphs

am of the opinion that troubled times require extraordinary lightness to bear, and these are troubled times. With this war, it would be easy to give into pessimism and fretfulness on one hand, or to surrender to bloodlust and jingoism on the other. I spent my day yesterday dwelling on one death, and, as of last night, the Unites States government has compounded that death by thousands. Whether you support this war or not, do not be deceived: the greatest number of dead will be that of the Iraqi citizenship that we claim to be freeing. They will die under rubble and in fire, and their deaths will be ugly and galling. They will be "dismembered, eviscerated, and killed" in the words of war correspondent Chris Hedges, and many of them will be children. This is the plain fact of the thing, even if we will never see it. And even those of us who support the war should recognize this, and be awed by it, and speak of this fact with the utmost respect. What occurs now in Iraq is terrible beyond our capacity to imagine it, and we prove ourselves to be nothing but schoolyard bullies with crippled souls when we celebrate it. War is a grave exercise and demands a capacity to mourn for the dead of even those we fight against. There is an apocryphal story told of the crossing of the Red Sea, in which, after the waters part to allow the Hebrews to pass, then sweep closed again to drown the pursuing Egyptians, the Hebrews begin to celebrate. God's voice booms down from the Heavens, stopping them. "How dare you celebrate?" he demands. "Do you not know that these were also my children?"

Yesterday began with a drowning. An old drowning, dating back to October, but news to everybody. I received word from that on Monday police pulled a friend's body from a river. This friend disappeared five months ago and had a history of severe depression, so the news that he flung himself into frigid autumn waters was not a complete surprise. I had hoped for a better outcome, but was instead met with the news that a friend is dead. And so it is with the world. There is war, and there is suicide, and for me, yesterday, there was both.

But this is not a time when it will do to be morose. Although I do not identify myself as a humorist, perhaps it would be best for me to attempt such a thing now, at least to help settle my own unstill mind. Humor is a great salve, an unction against despair; it is why somebody like Dorothy Parker, who suffered a notoriously bleak and agonized psyche, was, on the surface of things, relentlessly witty. It is easy to dismiss her wit as a neurotic tic, a shallow defense against depression. I find it neither neurotic nor shallow -- were it either, she would not have used her scabrous humor to so directly address her own gloomy madness in poems such as the following:

Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
Drugs cause cramps
Guns aren't lawful
Nooses give
Gas smells awful
You might as well live

No, for Parker, humor was anodyne. And, just now, I need a little of that pain-numbing wit. I need to stare into the face of what aches and frightens me just now, and I need to laugh at it. And so today's subject, long one of my favorites, is epitaphs.

There is, after all, something heartening about discovering that some gravestones offer up a little dark humor, although this goes against our generally dismal attitude toward the subject of mortality. It speaks well of us as a species that humans treat each new birth as an astounding miracle and treat death as a heartbreaking tragedy, when, in fact, the two are the only experiences so utterly common that they are shared by everything that lives. The only thing I know of my future is that it brings my death and the death of everyone I know, unless my most wishful prediction -- for a future in which science has eliminated death -- comes true. But we do not treat death as common, we treat it as a stranger, and we fear it and address the subject as one that must be spoken of in hushed, awed whispers. Appropriately so sometimes: those who are dying now in Iraq, soldiers and civilians alike, do not deserve to have their deaths treated as objects of fun, as meaningless inevitabilities that for some -- them -- came sooner rather than later.

But there are times when it is best to laugh at death. I do not know whether it was at the request of the deceased that a Georgia tombstone reads "I told you I was sick!", but God bless whoever was responsible. Certainly, Ellen Shannon of Girard, Pennsylvania, could not have predicted that her tombstone would be carved with bitterly ironic words, explaining that Shannon "was fatally burned March 21, 1870 by the explosion of a lamp filled with 'R.E. Danforth's Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.'" Would Shannon have appreciated such an epitaph? Perhaps, if she had a good sense of fun, and did not mind that her own unexpected death, which must have been terrible indeed, could be made light of when it was done. Whether she did or not, epitaphs are made for the living, not for the dead, and I appreciate the keen sense of irony that went into writing such a thing, even if Shannon would not have.

Some epitaphs are simply hateful, a subject I have mentioned in the past, along with printing my own hateful epitaph. Some die unloved, and those that bury them see their gravestones as a final opportunity to mock the despised. Take Tom Smith, who was buried in Newbury, England, in 1742, and whose gravestone takes great pains to display as much apathy as possible toward the man's death: "Tom Smith is dead, and here he lies, Nobody laughs and nobody cries; Where his soul's gone, or how it fares, Nobody knows, and nobody cares."

Or consider the case of a Welland, Ontario tombstone, which not only mocks the corpse beneath it, but further pokes fun at the living women of Ontario, whose virtue, it seems, was not unblemished: "Here lies all that remains of Charlotte, Born a virgin, died a harlot. For sixteen years she kept her virginity, A marvellous thing for this vicinity."

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As far as anyone can tell, people have been writing epitaphs as long as they have been marking the graves of the dead. The ancient Egyptians stamped epitaphs on funerary cones. These were rather bland affairs, mostly consisting of prayers to deities for the safeguarding of the deceased. Most of the Middle East practiced the art of the epitaph in the age of antiquity -- Aramaic epitaphs date back as far as 100 BC.

But we must look further west a poetic flourishing in this art. The Greeks and Romans were great ones for writing epitaphs. The prolific Greek poet Simonides practiced the art of epitaphs as a purely literary exercise. His famous ode to the fallen soldiers of the battle of Thermopylae was never meant to be carved into a tombstone, but has, nonetheless, commemorated the dead of that battle, and of many subsequent battles. It seems appropriate to cite it today: "Go tell the Spartans, Thou that passes by, That faithfully to their precepts, Here we lie."

The Greeks liked to meditate when composing epitaphs, even their own. When the philosopher Plato sat down to compose his own, he must have been in a particularly meditative mood, as he didn't bother to so much as name himself or his accomplishments. Instead, he modestly said this of his forthcoming grave: "I am a shipwrecked sailor’s tomb; a peasant's there doth stand: Thus the same world of Hades lies beneath both sea and land."

The Romans, by contrast, were men of accomplishment, and their epitaphs tended toward a literalness that is of great interest to contemporary historian, but is rather dull to anybody else. Occasionally, though, inspired by great feats, Roman poets would try their hand at literary epigraphs. In the 1st Century AD., the Roman poet Martial composed the following epitaph to a deceased charioteer: "I am Scorpus, the glory of the roaring circus, the object of Rome's cheers, and her short-lived darling. The Fates, counting not my years but the number of my victories, judged me to be an old man."

The earliest English epitaphs tend to likewise be fairly literal -- and disappointingly scant -- lists of dates and a few deeds, perhaps influenced by Rome's occupation of Britain. Once in a while, a poetic flourish is attempted, but these are usually humorless affairs. A grave from Thornbill, dating back to the 14th century or earlier, reads "Bonys emongg stonys lys ful steyl gwylste the sawle wandens were that God wylethe." If you squint a little, this is almost intelligible. In modern English it reads "Bones among stones lie full still, whilst the soul wanders whither God willeth."

It is shortly after this time that we start seeing hints of humor in epitaphs. The Black Plague influenced the art of the 15th century, creating entire genres of art inspired by the phrase Memento Mori (Remember, You Will Die), which included Danse Macabre illustrations of merry dead dancing around the living, engaging them in satirical dialogues. This grim humor found its way into poetry -- it's legacy is so strong that many, wrongly, still believe that it survives in the "Ring Around the Rosie" doggerel that is now common in nursery rhymes. It also found its way onto tombs, such as the following, commemorating the deaths of Edward and Mabel Courtenay, who died in 1419 of the plague:

What wee gave, wee have;
What wee spent, wee had;
What we left, we lost.

All right, so it's not a laugh a minute. But this sort of epigrammatic approach paved the way for future pithy epigrams that spoke, with a bit of sharpened wit, on the subject of death. Indeed, wit itself is the subject of the grave of Mrs. Aphra Behm, who died in 1689, and had this to say about the subject:

Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

One cannot tell whether Lord Byron laughed or sobbed when he penned this ode, to be inscribed on the grave of Boatswain, his beloved dog -- I suspect he did a little of both:

Near this spot
are deposited the remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery,
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just Tribute to the memory of
Boatswain, a DOG
who was born in Newfoundland, May 1803,
and died at Newstead, Nov 18, 1808.

We are now in the era of the Romantics, when death was both a subject for determined meditation and ironic foolery. This was a period, after all, that still suffered the legacy of graveyard poetry. This was a genre that flourished in the 18th century and consisted mostly of rhymed broodings about ghosts, ruined churches, and wailing nuns (all of whom would make the leap from poetry to literature in the form of the Gothic novel). Here's a particularly ponderous example, from "The Grave" by Scottish poet Robert Blair:

Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! that loves to dwell
'Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms:
Where light-heel'd ghosts, and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan, cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied thick, perform their mystic rounds,
No other merriment, dull tree! is thine.

With all due respects to Blair, it was not the tree that was dull. The Romantics, thank goodness, were not so mired in groaning poetic language. The poet and critic William Wordsworth wrote a rather lively series of essays upon epitaphs titled, appropriately enough, "Essays Upon Epitaphs." (Wordsworth writes, "To be born and to die are the two points in which all men feel themselves to be in absolute coincidence," a phrase that seems oddly familiar to me ... oh yes. Once upon a time, I wrote the following: "It speaks well of us as a species that humans treat each new birth as an astounding miracle and treat death as a heartbreaking tragedy, when, in fact, the two are the only experiences so utterly common that they are shared by everything that lives." It seems so very long ago I wrote those words.)

I cannot confirm that this new literary interest in the epitaph improved the quality of epitaph writing, but I can tell you that, after the romantic era, epitaphs got funnier. The grave of 19th century poet Peter Robinson, as an example, is inscribed with the very words I would want on my own tomb, were it not for the fact that Robinson beat me to it, as well as the fact that I don't wish to die. His grave reads:

Here lies the preacher, judge, and poet, Peter
Who broke the laws of God, and man, and metre.

And then there is this wonderful chastizement to death, offered up on the death of a Mrs. Patridge, who died in 1861:

What! Kill a partridge in the month of May!
Was that done like a sportsman? eh, death, eh?

As this is one of my favorite subjects, I will return to it, but I will close now, first with the deliciously nasty, self-penned epitaph to poet and writer Hillaire Belloc:

When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

And lastly with an epitaph of my own, to my friend who took his life, for whom, in this time of war and suicide, I try to find reason to laugh:

You went to the river
and now we know it;
some live above it
you drowned below it.

Cheers to you, my perished friend!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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Posted by UkuleleKing at 9:24 p.m.

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