WARNING: This feature has nothing to do with politics, terrorism, or race relations. It does, however, touch upon your unavoidable visit from the Grim Reaper.
Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you. — Carl Sandburg
In my explorations along back roads, deep woods, and left-behind places, I come across forgotten graveyards. Their tombstones, like tragic figures in some sad drama, long ago surrendered to weathering. Stones cut from rocks softer than granite appear to melt. Their epitaphs, devoid of sharp edges, a bit chalky, and softened by time and the elements prove difficult to decipher, their words illegible. Vines, weeds, and trees invade the gravesites. Crusts of rust cake wrought iron fences and many stones lean precariously in sympathy with fallen compatriots that lie cracked and shattered, destined to become cairns. Roots invade chambers and vines cover sepulchers. Loved ones who once battled the ravages of time that assaulted these cemeteries consigned to oblivion sleep in some forgotten place. Time banishes all and eventually the graves blacken, crumble, and acquiesce, robbing us of precious sentiments. No one remains to honor the remains, and words lovingly composed molder. What a shame.
Old tombstones were literary; not so the polished blue granite stones with birth and death dates chiseled into them. Though granite stones can stand over 400 years and clearly be legible, it just isn’t vogue to carve sentiment into stone anymore. It’s a damn shame soft stones succumb to rain, ice, and heat for their beautiful sentiment, verses, observations, and bon mots erode. White marble, however, holds up. Consider words 160 years old on a wheaten marble stone in McCormick County’s Badwell Cemetery.
“Sacred To The Memory Of Martha Petigru. Only Daughter And Last Remaining Child Of Thomas And Mary Ann Petigru. Aged 25 Years, 1 Month, and 16 Days. Her Sun Went Down While It Was Yet Day.” (Jeremiah 15:9) “Last remaining child” pulls at the heart and suggests the parents outlived their children … or perhaps some friend of the family composed this sentiment tinged with sadness. At the base of the stone you’ll see a name, W.T. White. The composer? No, the stonecutter, a clarification from Charlotte Thomas Marshall, who “accidentally became a cemetery person.” (Marshall edited The Tangible Past in Athens, Georgia available at Amazon)
Dearly departed’s stones with out-of-the-ordinary inscriptions today fall in the province of the men and women of letters. At least it seems that way. Daresay their last words prove memorable. Some laugh in the Grim Reaper’s face. Mel Blanc, the legendary voice of cartoon characters, commandeered Porky Pig’s signature line: “That’s all folks.” An anonymous departure made a jocular reference to being cremated: “The only way I could get a smoking hot body.” And a bit of a joker put on her tombstone, “On Vacation. Hold Mail.”
When your sun sets, and I hope it doesn’t go down while yet day, what might your epitaph say? Got some quote or witticism that will enlighten others for a few centuries? If you do, put it in your last will and testimony. That coin of life, time, can stop on a dime. Don’t go into the afterworld lost for words.
As memorable epitaphs go, writers craft their own words to be chiseled into stone and if they die epitaph-free, a memorable line purloined from their work will suffice.
Epitaphs from ten southern writers of varied significance, some who suffered hardship as youth, shed light on the human condition. (My theory holds that happy people seldom go into writing.) Borrowed from stone these last words range from sublime to blunt admission.
Conrad Aiken. August 5, 1889—August 17, 1973. Born in Savannah, Georgia, Aiken suffered profound tragedy as a boy. His father killed Aiken’s mother and then committed suicide. Give my love to the world. Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown (on a bench next to his grave in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery)
Truman Capote. Born in New Orleans, he gave us a gift, In Cold Blood, a pioneering form of narrative non-fiction. His parents neglected him often leaving him in the care of others. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. (From his last book).
James Dickey. February 2, 1923—January 19, 1997. Born in Atlanta, he cut a distinctive figure in contemporary American writing. World-class poet. I knew him and liked him very much. In June of 1995 he told me, “Boy, boy, I’ve been very close to the—I met the Dark Man. I’m very much aware of mortality. I’d like to think I have some more years, maybe 10, 12, or 15 at the most, but that’s in the lap of the Gods.” I move at the heart of the world.
William Faulkner. September 25, 1897—July 6, 1962. Born in New Albany, Mississippi, he wrote about “the old verities and truths of the heart.” Faulkner merits extra space here. This man who stood just five foot six was a literary giant. In one of the more remarkable feats of American literature, this man who never graduated from high school, this man who never received a college degree, who lived in a small town in the poorest state in the nation during the Great Depression wrote a series of novels that would be recognized as among the greatest novels ever written by an American. Beloved Go With God.
Ellen Glasgow. April 22, 1873—November 21, 1945. Born in Richmond, Virginia, she published her first novel, The Descendant, in 1897, when she was 24 years old. With this novel Glasgow began a literary career encompassing four and a half decades and comprising 20 novels, a collection of poems, one of stories, and a book of literary criticism. For many years she suffered heart disease. She died in her sleep at home in Richmond. Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.
Barry Hannah. April 23, 1942—March 1, 2010. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, he would become the writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. Plot and character didn’t concern him as much as regional speech, an incident ripe with meaning, the startling metaphor, and the ingeniously shaped sentence. It was a short ride like all the last ones. From his collection of short stories about Vietnam, the Civil War, and the modern South.
Willie Morris. November 29, 1934—August 2, 1999. Always liked Willie. One of the highlights of my unexceptional career is seeing my byline alongside his in Reckon magazine. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, but a child of Yazoo City, Morris never stopped exploring what he once described as ‘‘the old warring impulses of one’s sensibility to be both Southern and American.’’ In 1967 he became the youngest editor-in-chief ever at Harper’s Magazine and a major literary figure in the city (NYC) he came to call ‘‘the Big Cave.’’ Even across the divide of death friendship remains an echo forever in the heart.
Eudora Welty. April 13, 1909—July 23, 2001. She came into and left the world in Jackson, Mississippi. We remember her as a silver-haired elder of American letters. She never married nor had children and lived in the same house all her modest life. For certain she ran against the grain of the stereotypical literary genius as a tortured artist. For her life, any life, she had to believe was nothing but the continuity of its love. From her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter.
Thomas Wolfe. October 3, 1900—September 15, 1938. Look Homeward, Angel, Wolfe’s epic autobiographical novel, depicted life in a turn-of-the-century American city, Altamont, a thinly disguised Asheville. It didn’t sit well with many residents. Wolfe, however, did go home again in 1937, though his book was officially banned there. Even so, Asheville gave him a warm welcome. TOM … A Beloved American Author … The Last Voyage, The Longest, The Best.
Before our last Southern writer and his epitaph appear, I’ll bestow honorary “Southern Writer” status upon a brilliant man. Ernest “Papa” Hemingway penned a memorial for a friend killed in a hunting accident. The incomparable passage became Hemingway’s epitaph after that fateful summer morning in Ketchum, Idaho. Best of all he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods floating on the trout streams and above the hills. The high blue windless sky . . . Now he will be part of them forever.
Tennessee Williams. March 26, 1911—February 25, 1983. Yet another Mississippi writer, Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi. A Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright, he gave us A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Roof. Depression and a nervous breakdown afflicted him before writing elevated him. At the age of 28, he moved to New Orleans, where he changed his name to Tennessee because his father hailed from the Volunteer State and “revamped his lifestyle, soaking up the city life that would inspire his work,” particularly A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams died in his suite at the Elysee Hotel in New York at age of 71. Controversy and confusion attended the spending of his coin; never resolved. And what were his last words? The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks. Beautiful and meaningful words with which to bid adieu.