for our ultimate audience

Angel sculpture with rosesTalk about writer’s block: What about having to write an epitaph for your mother’s gravestone?

The idea of an epitaph, of course, is that it’s written for the ages, even those short simple annals of the poor on weed-lost tombstones.

I write, and teach writing. I teach that it starts with your audience. If you’ve been writing only for your teacher, you haven’t really started to learn writing. Writing well for a mass of strangers – that’s more like it.

But writing in stone for that imagined little audience of generations unborn? There’s a word for that. It’s an almost useless word today, one that I was pleased recently to teach our daughter, who reads more than I do and beats us all in Scrabble. “Ok, the word for the day,” said I, “is . . . lapidary.”

She didn’t know “lapidary.” It means of or pertaining to stone. So naturally, most of the citations of the word’s distinctive usages in the Oxford English Dictionary are from writers like DeQuincey in the 19th century, a true Stone Age. That was a time when load-bearing stones created churches and grand civic buildings, and when writers of English sought a “lapidary” prose style.

We don’t write on stone anymore. We don’t even write on paper. Our written words are ghosts, zillions of digitized Os and 1s zinging around the planet.

The old is all we have that’s new. Go to the cemeteries, the libraries. 
Be still for a little while.

I wrote that in a poem, as a pretend poet whose audience, I admit now, was mostly my parents. They also wrote poetry – and prose, some of it even lapidary. Our homespun occasional poetry we called our family secret. In our childhoods, my father recited poems by Stephen Vincent Benet, G. K. Chesterton or Elinor Wiley to us at bedtime, a Southern music in language.

my mother Emily Cumming
My mother, Emily Wright Cumming

My mother died a few months ago at 90 and was cremated. My father’s cognitive impairment, without Mama’s frisky social schedule for cover, became more apparent. He moved into an assisted living center. The old familiar poems still give him joy and meaning, as if they were the deep structure of his consciousness.

I was assigned to arrange for a gravestone where our mother’s ashes will be interred. The burial is in a family plot in Augusta, Ga., the ancestral home of my father’s line going back to when Thomas Cumming, the first mayor, welcomed George Washington to the town in 1791.

I have always enjoyed reading gravestone epitaphs in historic cemeteries like the one in Augusta, but never had to write one. Here in Lexington, Va., the historic Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is full of epitaphs as brief as “It is well,” and as prolix as the words on the marker for Lee’s artillery general William Nelson Pendleton:

“Of gentle birth and of goodly presence he was a man pure, true, noble, a scholar ripe, exact, accomplished, a teacher wise, thorough, efficient, a soldier generous, dauntless, skillful, a Christian steadfast, unmovable. . .,” and so on, and ALL IN CAPS.

Joe Cumming, former Newsweek bureau chief and my father reading the death notice for his wife, my mother Emily Cumming, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Joe Cumming, former Newsweek bureau chief and my father, reading the death notice for his wife, my mother Emily Cumming, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I thought of a few possible lapidariae, trying to sound a bit eternal but with a dash of my parents’ whimsy and skepticism. Considering the vague, biblical “It is well,” my sister suggested expanding that to the title of a lovely hymn, “It is well with my soul.” But then she demurred that she was “not quite tingly on the epitaph yet, but close!” There was no support for quoting Augusta’s most famous son, James Brown:

“OW!! I feel good.”

Then it came to me, as in a dream. A poet named Conrad Aiken had always been a favorite of my father’s and my mother’s. A mysterious Aiken poem called “The Morning Song of Lord Zero” became the title poem of a 1963 collection that Aiken sent to my father, signed, in response to my father’s fan letter. The end of the poem is weirdly visionary, an alternative heaven introduced this way:

“The landscape why is it not as we had foreseen it/ there are hills before us but no mountains. . .”

My father has long insisted that we read this part of the poem at his funeral.

In that final section of “Lord Zero,” I found the perfect epitaph for the gravestone my parents will one day share:

“our feet are now in the morning brook/ and its clear parable of time.”

Aiken was an unbeliever, a shadow of his friend T.S. Eliot who stuck with the unauthorized human mysteries. His own epitaph, in an old Savanah, Ga., cemetery, he cribbed from something he read in the shipping news section of the local newspaper:

“Cosmos Mariner Destination Unknown.”

We don’t know our ultimate audience, those future figures who will haunt our 21st century grave sites. But my guess is that, among the epitaphs of Georgia governors and congressmen in Summerville Cemetery, they might be better pleased thinking of a loving husband and wife with pants rolled up, wading in a chilly brook that is, in some symbolic way, a glimpse of eternity inside of ordinary time.

My sister read the epitaph to my father and replied in an email, “he’s a definite yes, with tears and grabbing my hand and saying yesyesyes!!!”

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Image: The feature image of the angel sculpture with roses was icensed by LikeTheDew.com – © Malgorzata Kistryn - Fotolia.com and hand colored by the Dew; the photos of Emily and Joe Cumming were taken by Bryan Cumming and used here with permission.
Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press.