The other day I was asked to write an epitaph for a relative, just one sentence summing up a human life. I couldn’t imagine him without his books so I came up with three alternatives: “An indomitable reader, he has found a quieter library”; “He loved books more than people”; and “He died to save the library fines”. The first one was accepted as the latter two were seen as being too cutesy. The process reminded me of the scene in the film Dances with Wolves, where the Sioux see John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) playing with a wolf and give him the name Dances with Wolves because, in their tradition, a name usually signifies a special quality or trait for which a person is known.
How would you like to be remembered after you are gone? What would you like to have as your epitaph? These are not unimportant questions. Hundreds of successful entrepreneurs interviewed near the end of their lives said that near the end of the road you will ask three simple questions:
- Did I contribute something meaningful?
- Was I a good person?
- Who did I love and who loved me?
The day after your death someone else will answer those questions, but until then you have a chance to influence their answers.
Imagine your funeral. What do you think your family, friends and co-workers would say about you? Now think about what you would like them to say about you. Imagine a person speaking at your funeral. What do they say about what you accomplished during your life, about whose lives you touched, what you meant to the person speaking? Think about the kinds of things you wouldn’t want the speaker to say. Now imagine that you get a quick glimpse of the inscription on your gravestone. It was short, it captured how you wanted to be remembered, and it succinctly summarized your life to those who never met you. What did it say?
I had lunch today with a friend and when I asked what he would like on his epitaph (I know how to behave over lunch) he replied that he wanted something that stated that he had had a good life and felt fortunate to have done so. Here are some examples of famous epitaphs that I like:
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Excuse my dust.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Sleep after toile, port after stormie seas, ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
Harriet Stuart Mill (died 1858), wife of John Stuart Mill
Were there but a few hearts and intellects like hers this earth would already become the hoped-for heaven.
Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral
Si monumentum requiris circumspice
[If you require a monument, look around.]
I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.
Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.
Kohima Memorial Epitaph
When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today
“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain (1835-1910). On learning that his obituary had been published.