Professor asks students what their epitaphs will leave behind

Perhaps we can tell a great deal about how folks have lived out their lives from their epitaphs.

What about our epitaphs? At the end, what assessment will we make of it all? How will your epitaph read? What will my epitaph say?

Will it read with comic cynicism like the epitaph of W.C. Fields? “Better here than Philadelphia.” Or will it reek of fatalism or resignation or insignificance?

Kentucky’s Thomas Johnson published his poetry in “The Kentucky Miscellany” in 1789, making him one of Kentucky’s earliest poets. His nicknames – “Drunken Tom” and “The drunken poet of Danville” ­– tell us something about where he received his inspiration.

His poem, “The Author’s Hatred to Kentucky in General,” shows us why he was never chosen as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate:

 

I hate Kentucky, curse the place,

And all her vile and miscreant race!

Who make religion’s sacred tie,

A mash through which they cheat and lie;

I hate all judges here of late,

And every lawyer in the state.

Each quack that is call’d physician,

And all blockheads in commission

Worse than the Baptist roaring rant,

I hate the Presbyterian cant.

Their parsons, elders, nay the whole,

And wish them gone with all my soul.

Far worse than these, I yet do hate,

All those who pimp or speculate.

All rogues and villains, men in trade,

(If a distinction may be made.

Glad would I be: `twas quickly done,

For my own part I know of none).

It shouldn’t surprise us that Drunken Tom’s epitaph, written by the poet himself, was as unedifying as his published poetry:

 

Underneath this marble tomb,

In endless shades lies drunken Tom;

Here safely moor’d, dead as a log

Who got his death by drinking grog,

By whiskey grog he lost his breath,

Who would not die so sweet a death.

Other grave markers are just as flippant (or profound?) as Drunken Tom’s. One read:

“Once I wasn’t

Then I was

Now I ain’t again.”

Or:

“Rest in peace, dear Cousin Hewitt. We all know you didn’t do it.”

Or:

“Here lies the father of 29

There would have been more

But he ran out of time.”

Other epitaphs express more serious – although just as fatalistic – sentiments. Os Guinness includes some of these epitaphs in his book, “The Call.” A sense of failure permeates the epitaph of Cecil Rhodes at his grave in Zimbabwe: “So much to do, so little done.”

In contrast, some epitaphs are infused with a sense of calling like that of Emily Dickinson after her life of poetic accomplishment. Dickinson’s epitaph reads simply, “Called Back.”

What about our epitaphs? At the end of a life of calling, what assessment will we make of it all?

How will your epitaph read? What will my epitaph say? Why, after all, are we here?