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What Is Your Epitaph?

January 19, 2015

Death, Dying, Estate Planning

Epitaph

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.]

Winston Churchill

I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

Jesse James

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.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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49 Comments on “What Is Your Epitaph?”

  1. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm,

    I can’t say much because your writing speaks for itself.

    It’s probably best to have a good sense of humor, too, especially on such a day; how we acted when no one was looking. How we treated others, especially when it didn’t seem to matter to us at the time.

    ***I don’t think I would have liked to run across Jesse James in any but the most favorable circumstances.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, great points. Actually there’s no better test of someone’s character then how they behave when nobody is looking or how they treat others when they have nothing to gain. I agree with you about Jesse James. Incidentally, his epitaph was written by his mother so maybe it’s her you would have wanted to avoid 🙂

      Reply

  2. Mikels Skele Says:

    Well, for me, “Never understood a minute of it,” would be fine.

    Reply

  3. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    How odd. I just watched a movie, “Get Low”, last night. It’s about a hermit who decides he’ll have his “funeral party” while he’s still alive so that he can hear all the things that people say behind his back. The ending’s a bit different, so I won’t tell you more. Worth a watch. Robert Duvall is excellent.

    As for me personally, I hate funerals. Not because of all the sadness and crying, etc. which is all pretty normal, but because I’ve had some pretty awful experiences with them. If I had my way, I’d rather not have one, but that’s kind of selfish. I understand that it provides some kind of emotional release for others, so I think I’ll leave it to those around me to decide what they want.

    OR I’ll have a funeral party. Like tomorrow. And I’ll lie in the coffin and pretend I’m dead and listen to what everyone has to say about me. (It will be open casket, of course. I’ll scare people by opening my eyes at the end, then I’ll get up and walk about like a zombie and yell incoherent things.) 🙂

    I really like the epitaph: “Excuse my dust.” Nice. I can’t think of one for myself.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I just added Get Low to my Netflix queue. I was trying to think what could be worse about funerals than all the sadness and crying but then I remembered that often people turn up whom you would rather not see, or there are nasty scenes as recriminations start to fly, so I understand why you might dislike funerals so much. I have a very black sense of humor so I really like your idea of a funeral party while you are alive and the zombie walk would certainly make it memorable 🙂

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        You got it right…nasty, nasty scenes. Something about death makes people crazy. But I must admit, my father’s funeral was a learning experience. Now I know what to expect. Then I just thought everything would be sad…I had no idea it could be much worse.

        I hope you enjoy that movie. I thought it was fairly well done. Good storytelling, good tension. I was surprised that I’d never heard of it, but then I thought about that title. I think that’s probably the worst thing about the movie.

        Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      That’s what Morrie did as he faced death with Lou Gehrig’s, the professor Mitch Albom wrote about in Tuesdays with Morrie. M didn’t get that people would turn up to say wonderful things about him after the fact, when he could not hear it. So they celebrated his life on the threshold of his passing – yes, in his hearing.

      Reply

  4. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Great post! I love your examples. Mine would be “I tried.”

    Reply

  5. apagewithoutlines Says:

    This post really has me thinking, Malcolm. An epitaph is so few words to remember a lifetime. I hope mine would say something like, “chaser of dreams; lover of life.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “…so few words to remember a lifetime”

      Yes, it’s like paring the briefest of blog posts down to its essential minimum. Another analogy that came to mind was when I had to reduce my father’s house, with a lifetime of belongings, down to a single suitcase, representing the only things he couldn’t do without. I like your epitaph.

      Reply

  6. Don Shaughnessy Says:

    Brilliant Malcolm. A worthy epitaph is the ultimate strategic goal. I suppose the hypochondriac version is “See, I told you I was sick.”

    Reply

  7. aFrankAngle Says:

    A post well done … oh mine … If you didn’t understand him, you didn’t know him.

    Reply

  8. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Love Dorothy P’s. This post stirs a mix of feelings, but I smile for the condensation of My Obituary that it is, and the Grammar Mafia certainly approves of the challlenge to save spit (my mantra from the earliest days on my blog, if you’re not aware). You didn’t tell us what yours would be.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Why mixed feelings HW? Mine, I think I’ve known it since I was a boy – Sapere Aude.

      Reply

      • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

        I happened to have finished a novel that moved me and resonated with me, just before getting to this post. Some of the subthemes in the book were death, knowing, and being known. If instead of the imperative (that is, the challenge DARE to KNOW) that you quoted, you would rather your epitaph be “He dared to know/understand”, it would be

        scire ausus est

        or noscere for “to learn”.

        Reply

  9. Lily Lau Says:

    Oh Malcolm… you just made me want to be an even better person, right now!!

    Reply

  10. D.G.Kaye Says:

    A very thought provoking post Malcolm. I have sometimes pondered that question myself. Perhaps it’s something I shall delve more deeply into, for one never knows when the day of reckoning will come. I personally like Churchill’s. 🙂

    Reply

  11. UpChuckingwords Says:

    Very good post, Malcolm. I’m putting ” Get Low” in my Netflix list as well. I like your choice of epitaph. I think I’d like mine to be something along the lines of… Just simply stated: kindness. One word. Maybe people will softly nod their heads and say, yup. Feel good and walk away

    Reply

  12. aaforringer Says:

    Great writing my friend, every once in while we should reflect what our legacy will be. Perspective important.
    Don’t really have an epitaph picked out, since I will be cremated and I have a little insurance policy for my daughter to scatter my ashes somewhere I have never been. (Right now I am leaning towards Iceland, but if I get there before I die, I will have to pick some place else)
    But my funeral is a no jacket no tie affair (tying a knot around you neck always seems absurd to me). In fact it is encouraged to wear Hawaiian shirts, and if you don’t have one when you get to the location, a rack with mine will be there for you to don. I won’t be needing them.
    Also halfway thru the funeral I have instructed that Monty Python’s Dead Parrot be played.

    Reply

  13. NicoLite Великий Says:

    I think mine might say “always a fighter, he had the last laugh as he died”

    Reply

  14. xstatman Says:

    The Epicureans said it best 2300 years ago: Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care”

      Thanks Zoli, but is it true that just because you are dead you no longer care for your loved ones? Surely an epitaph is there as much to remind future generations of what you stood for than it is for one’s own projected self-gratification?

      Reply

  15. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Love this post Malcolm. I’ve had cause to ask myself similar questions recently due to the early death of a family member. I won’t have an epitaph, since I’ll be cremated, but if I did, I would go for ‘I have been Her Kind’, after the poem by Anne Sexton.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Andrea, thank you. I was not familiar with Anne Sexton’s poetry so I just read ‘Her Kind’, a beautiful and evocative poem illustrating the hidden depths in women, or maybe in all of us. That would be a striking epitaph indeed.

      Reply

  16. Michele Seminara Says:

    Food for thought, thank you, Malcolm. Always raising the big questions, and today’s was the biggest!

    Reply

  17. Tahira Says:

    There is a Henry James quote I keep in my diary, he pointed out the three things most important in life “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” You and others said it here, Malcolm. Kindness, how one treats another with absolutely nothing to gain. If I were to die tomorrow I would be very pleased if my epitaph said something in regards to kindness. Your post is a great reminder of this. Because sometimes, it’s really difficult.
    And I personally favor the Winston Churchill epitaph 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Tahira. There’s humility and wisdom in your emphasis on the importance of kindness in life while there is strength and mischievousness in your choice to favor Churchill’s epitaph.

      Reply

  18. Dalo 2013 Says:

    This is good. You did well, and given a choice I’d love to have a epitaph like Churchill’s however that simply is not me. For me, I think it will be quite simple…I will go missing at sea at the age of 107, boat and body never found. 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Dalo, I would not have expected any less of you! I had thought about something similar myself, going to lay down somewhere in Yosemite when the time is right. That is, of course, what many inhabitants of wilderness areas used to do. However, it takes some good luck. Knowing mine, I would be discovered before I had time to die and rushed off to die in intensive care 🙂

      Reply

  19. Daniela Says:

    If, however unlikely, it so happened that somebody find appropriate to grace my final resting place with a stone on which an epitaph can be written … I would like it to be under the tree and contain a poem that would entice all occasional passers-by to stop for a minute, read it and take it with them … such as my favourite R.M.Rilke’s; ‘For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.’

    Reply

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    Reply

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