The Last Word

An epitaph is a belated advertisement for a line of goods that has been discontinued.

-- Irvin S. Cobb

H.G. Wells, author of more than 100 books, was apparently determined to have the last word. Near the end of his life, he composed an epitaph for himself that could not be ignored: “I told you so. You damned fools.” This parting shot was tacked onto the introduction to The War in the Air, which was originally published in 1908 but reissued in 1921 and again in 1941, when Britain endured nightly bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe. Written only four years after the Wright Brothers first flew, Wells’ book presciently warned that the coming age of aerial warfare would make future conflicts too terrible to contemplate; hence, more than 30 years later, his epitaph.

Judging by the lists of famous epitaphs found on the Internet, writers and comedians are over-represented among notables who insist on composing their own. "I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover's quarrel with the world," Robert Frost once said. These words now grace the granite slab over his grave in a churchyard in Old Bennington, Vermont. The gravesite in Rockville, Maryland marking the final resting place of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda has a stone slab with an inscription from The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." W.B. Yeats’ epitaph was originally composed for a poem that envisioned his final resting place in a Drumcliff churchyard in County Sligo, Ireland:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Humorists often cannot resist the temptation to turn their epitaphs into a final quip. Stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s granite marker in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles reads: “There goes the neighborhood.” The steps to entertainer Jackie Gleason’s mausoleum in Miami are inscribed with the signature line from his 1950’s TV program: “And away we go.” W.C. Fields famously suggested that his epitaph should read: “I would rather be living in Philadelphia." However, his actual gravestone in Forest Lawn Cemetery includes no such inscription. Dorothy Parker proposed “Pardon my dust” for her tombstone, but she was cremated and her ashes were scattered. Similarly, George Carlin was cremated, leaving nowhere for his proposed epitaph: “Gee, he was here a moment ago.”

As it happens, H.G. Wells was also cremated, and his next of kin chose to scatter his ashes at sea rather than inter them in a place where his parting shot could be inscribed for the ages. This points up one of the many drawbacks to death, which is that our hold on life ends soon after we do. Our nearest and dearest may or may not feel obliged to follow our wishes in this or in any other matter. Most of us linger in memory only for a generation or two after we are gone, in any case. Even H.G. Wells, author of 100 books and once perhaps the most famous writer in the world, is remembered today for only a handful of his works. His words are not inscribed in stone even on his own grave, since there is none. If you ever visit an old New England cemetery, you will notice that even words written in stone will wear away with time. Perhaps then there was more than mere modesty in the epitaph John Keats chose for the nameless tombstone that marks his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Beneath an inscription identifying him only as a young English poet are the words: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

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