A Few Last Words
I remember the first epitaph I loved.
I was no more than seven, skipping after my grandfather. He was a big man with arthritic knees. He lumbered, bear-like, among the stones.
Every summer we visited him in David City, a small town in a flat Nebraska county. I remember those summers for their delicious freedom, their exquisite boredom, the smell of mown grass and cigarettes. There were rituals to be observed: reading tattered Casper comic books. Watching Batman pow and bam at 2 p.m. Eating Lorna Doones and animal crackers until our mouths gummed up. Riding with my grandfather out to his cornfields. With his ruined eyes, he would survey the flapping green and be satisfied. And the most important ritual: visiting the cemetery.
My grandfather carried a rag in his gnarled hand. He bent to polish my grandmother’s low stone, wiping away the dried thatch and the bird droppings. She had died when I was five. Already I had forgotten her face. Her stone I remember clearly. There was her name, Eleanor, and a rose engraved in the corner.
My grandmother had spent most of her life in Maryland. It was my grandfather’s idea to return to his boyhood home. He was the mayor of David City for a time. He could not drive, with his eyes, but he installed the first and only stoplight. In this tiny town, he was loved. For Eleanor, far from everything she knew, David City must have been a kind of death.
My grandfather’s stone stood next to hers, inscribed with an ear of corn and his name, Robert. His birthdate was followed by a dash, a space.
As he labored, I wandered away. And then I saw it: one long epitaph among the terse Nebraska stones.
Pause, stranger, as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Prepare for death, and follow me.
This guy, this dead guy, was talking to me! I was delighted. I did not take him seriously. I was seven, and I loved my pink Big Wheel, and death was distant.
I think back to another summer memory in Nebraska: climbing on the old Sherman tank that slumbered on its concrete pad in the park. I was small enough to slide, unseen, under the beast — and I discovered that the escape hatch on the bottom had been left open. I shimmied up. I remember a helmeted mannequin in the driver’s seat, and a bank of mysterious controls. The tank’s interior was as cramped as a space capsule. Having come up head-first, I was not sure how to eject.
From a distance of some 30 years, I shiver. Oh, child. You might have been lost.
But I twisted like a centipede, and wriggled out, and was free.
As you are now, so once was I.
I liked to visit that verse, and could recite it on command. My mother showed me how to make a rubbing. I made a passable copy, in purple crayon. The epitaph became my own.
As I am now, so you shall be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.
Epitaphs should be instructive, I think. I’d like to stroll a cemetery bristling with well-meaning advice, each line a gift for the living. But most are grand pronouncements, wishful thinking, bland untruths.
When I moved to Richmond, I collected more epitaphs from the vales of Hollywood Cemetery. (It was named for the trees, not for celebrities, although the occupants did think highly of themselves. There once was a sign over the gate that said, “Hollywood Cemetery — the Pantheon of Departed Worth — the Future Mecca of the Old Dominion.”)
On James Branch Cabell’s stone are his own words:
We know that instantly in Paradise
Yea, in the inmost court of Heaven’s house —
A gentleman to God lifts those brave eyes
Which yesterday made life more brave for us.
Cabell, late in life, attempted to rewrite all of his novels as one long, convulsive autobiography. Eighteen volumes in all, and it was not enough. “He is constantly in the throes of explaining and justifying himself to himself,” said one of Cabell’s friends. Was his epitaph his last attempt?
The grave of Margaret Cabell, his second wife, reads: Whom time has converted into a person even more dear. Which sounds like a polite way of saying, “We had no idea we’d miss you this much.”
Nearby stands the severe stone of another Richmond author, Ellen Glasgow. It bears a few words from Milton: Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new. A line leaping with exuberance, for a writer of unrelenting gloom. “The mystery to me is not why a few are unable to bear life,” she wrote once, “but why the whole world doesn’t end its existence.”
Only one thing brought Ellen joy: Jeremy, her white Sealyham terrier. Her final wish was to have him exhumed, and his poor fur buried with her as a comfort. Perhaps the epitaph was meant for Jeremy. It fits.
The ones I love best are simple. They speak of grief and hope.
Until the day break and the shadows flee away.
It is not night when thou art near.
Someday we’ll understand.
The doggerel verse I loved as a child was not actually composed by a clever Nebraskan. It is an old rhyme of unknown provenance, copied by hundreds of corpses. I still like it. After all, it’s true.
Last year, I visited my grandfather’s grave. He died far from his beloved fields — almost twenty years ago, now. He was buried in Maryland, in the same crowded cemetery as Francis Scott Key. (His epitaph, the longest yet: all four verses of the Star-Spangled Banner). Eleanor was moved to her husband’s side. Too late, she came home.
As best I could, I polished the granite with Lysol wipes. I cleaned away the droppings and the thatch, and I left a chocolate-chip cookie on his stone. My daughter took a bite out of it. She knew he wouldn’t mind.
My grandfather has no epitaph. Only the ear of corn.
I think it is enough.
Melissa Scott Sinclair is a fiction writer and award-winning journalist. Her recent work has appeared in Richmond magazine and the anthology Life In 10 Minutes. Her short story “Everything Must Go,” a ghost story set in the decaying corporate headquarters of Circuit City, was published in the anthology Richmond Macabre.