How to Write Your Epitaph by primusboy


									How to Write Your Epitaph
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 possible.
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
I? Why?
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:
I Tried.
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 through eternity.
* * *
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 Ptah:
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 celebrities.
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 this one:
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 letters.
The writing of your own epitaph requires thought about the good and
useful things you ought to do to justify an inspiring memorial.
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.
* * *
"Dear Abby" continues under the auspices of her daughter Jeanne. She grew
up helping her famous mother select letters for comment on the joys and
tribulations of everyday folks -- giving right to those who love, and
wrong to those who hate.
Lindsey Williams is a Sun columnist who can be contacted at:
Website: with several hundred of Lin's
Editorial & At Large articles written over 40 years.
Also featured in its entirety is Lin's groundbreaking book "Boldly
Onward," that critically analyzes and develops theories about the
original Spanish explorers of America. (fully indexed/searchable)

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