Sunday, October 20, 2013

Let Us Talk of Epitaphs

I was struck breathless recently, hearing this soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard II for the first time in a magnificent PBS production. The king has just been informed of the execution of his friends, and his poignant response begins with this lament, compelled to confront death without reassurance or pretense:

My husband and I have an appointment at the mortuary this week. It’s time for us to talk of epitaphs. For months, I couldn’t even face writing Noah’s dates, much less imagine words for his gravestone. Coming up with the right message feels like the hardest exam I’ve ever taken, with an answer I can never get right. These words will be written in stone, outlasting all of us. Nothing could be more permanent. The epitaph that “writes sorrow on the bosom of the earth” and the placement of the stone over his grave will seal the permanence of our son’s horrific and untimely death. 

At the moment we are leaning toward the simple. We can never capture who he was and how he lived in a few lines. So we gravitate toward the heartfelt:
            Much loved
            Much missed
            Forever in our hearts

I am not sure this is enough. Will it feel right in ten months, much less ten or twenty years? I want some summation of his spirit and talents to be memorialized, along with our love. But where to begin? A list of interests and hobbies seems trivial, more for a resume or a Facebook site than an epitaph. Maybe we can choose a line that hints at this, along with our love, like one of the following:
            Tender soul    
            He made things happen
            Bunsen burner of joy
            Full of life
            So many gifts
But these feel like lines from a book or movie ad.

I am leaning toward the last line. So many gifts that Noah possessed, so many that he shared with family and friends over the years. The notion of gifts is not wholly comfortable now, with us still so wounded by his suicide and blind to any spiritual gifts it might eventually yield. Still, the gifts Noah had and shared in life are how I would like to remember him and have others remember him. 

So many gifts, so much promise.

At a loss for words.


  1. Hi Susan, what did you end up going with?
    My family is facing the same awkward question.
    I am tempted to suggest "Eternal Damnation" or "What an idiot" but that is my anger and bitterness towards the way he died.
    I am also pondering the bible quote "For I know the plans I have for you" because it is hopeful - but this is not going well with my siblings/mother.
    Really liked your short and sweet ideas.

  2. Hello Rachel,
    I'm very sorry for your loss. These decisions about gravestones are so difficult, especially in the early stages of mourning. I think you're right to resist putting anything angry or bitter on there, though you are totally entitled to those feelings. All I can advise is to think about how you want to remember your loved one and somehow reflect that--and also give yourself enough time, if possible, to reflect on the words you and others want, sit with them a while, before deciding on something to be written in stone. All the best with this difficult process.
    In shared sorrow,