Epitaphs have the uncanny ability of bringing fiction close to fact
Bugs Bunny got me thinking about mortality. At the end of each episode, while munching on a piece of juicy carrot, the adorable Bugs would say, “That’s all folks”. These words — can there be a more poker-faced admission about the finiteness of life? — I learnt later, are etched on the tombstone of Mel Blanc, the man who gave Bugs his inimitable voice.
But it wasn’t Bugs Bunny alone who was on my mind early in November on the occasion of ‘National Write Your Own Epitaph Day’. I sat thinking of Ebenezer Scrooge as well. In an epiphanic moment in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens made Scrooge catch a glimpse of his own gravestone. Scrooge, terrified at the prospect of his annihilation and anonymity, promptly turns over a new leaf.
Interestingly, epitaphs have the uncanny ability of bringing fiction close to fact. For in real life too, writers have been tied to the tombstone, in a manner of speaking, on account of their desire for immortality.
Some of them — Ben Jonson is one example — made it a point to let the world know even from across the Styx that there was no other like them. Fittingly, the words emblazoned on Jonson’s tomb read, ‘O Rare Ben Jonson’.
W.B. Yeats, presumably, would have none of Jonson’s immodesty. The poet requested the Horseman to ‘cast a cold eye’ on both life and death and then pass by. Was Yeats referring to the futility of the all-too-human craving for permanence?
Death and its prospect of erasure have proved to be irresistible for some others. Martin Luther King Jr. rejoiced at the prospect of tasting the freedom brought by death. Why else would his tombstone exclaim ‘Free at last’? The epitaph of Oscar Wilde, who had endured both infamy and fame, is suggestive of the playwright’s recognition of his own alienation. Mourners, it says movingly, are outcast men and that the outcast always mourn. Come to think of it, both King and Wilde, two men separated by time and settings, may have been hinting at suffering a life of prejudice even in death.
Meanwhile, Keats remained lyrical in both death and life. Few other headstones can claim the haunting beauty of this inscription: ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’
I realized on ‘Write Your Own Epitaph Day’ that morbid souls searching for a bit of inspiration are, mercifully, spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing the words that would adorn their own tombstones.
Given my own aversion to, not obscurity but, untidiness — my beloved condition is called Ataxophobia — I decided to go with Dorothy Parker, who, it is believed, chose this concise but profound message.
‘Excuse my dust’.