Searching For A Fitting Epitaph

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Richard Gelles, author of more than two dozen academic books and hundreds of articles and a longtime professor of social policy, died of brain cancer in late June. The widely esteemed academic reportedly told his son that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to read, “Published. Still Perished.” I could find no mention of this in the numerous obituaries I looked up, but I choose to believe it is true. I admire someone who finds humor in the face of death.

That got me to pondering what epitaph I might choose for my tombstone, if I were going to have one. I’m not, preferring cremation on the installment plan. My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I each pay $50 a month to a company to finance our cremation when the time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil. We are both doing our best to stay safe during this pandemic and extend our visit here. Still, the wooden boxes for our ashes sitting in the bedroom closet on a shelf above my unused suit jackets (where would I wear a suit these days?), are a daily reminder of our mortality. The bulk of my ashes will be scattered over Lady Bird Lake in Austin. I’ll leave enough in the estate to buy Red Sox tickets for my daughters, so they can sneak a smidgen into Fenway Park as well.

The cremation plan will be paid off in about six months. I hope this isn’t like a warranty on one’s vehicle, which blows a transmission two weeks after the service contract expires.

I guess if I were going to have an epitaph, it would be: Opposed the use of the Oxford comma and using “impact” as a verb. Upon reflection, that’s a bit lengthy for a tombstone, so I might go with: He looked shorter in person. That’s what a reader of my newspaper column once said upon meeting me, as if the mug shot accompanying the piece was any indication of physical stature. Or perhaps I could steal screenwriter and film director Billy Wilder’s epitaph: I’m a Writer but then nobody’s perfect. Wilder lived to be 95, so maybe…

In the spring of 1997, daughters Kasey, Meredith and I flew to England for a two-week tour. We relied heavily on the U.K.’s excellent rail system to get around. One stop we made was at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon, where William Shakespeare is buried inside the church. Shakespeare reportedly wrote his own epitaph, fearing grave robbers:


Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

 To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.


It seems to have worked. The Bard’s bones are still there.

Famed talk-show host Merv Griffin also wrote his own epitaph. He wisely declined to use the overused cliché: I told you I was sick. Merv who died in 2007 at 82, instead had this inscribed on his tombstone: I will not be right back after this message.

Finally, one of my personal favorites is in the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin. Bill Kugle was an Athens attorney who served one term in the Texas Legislature as a state representative from Galveston. That was his admission ticket to the Texas State Cemetery. After being defeated for re-election, Kugle moved to Athens, in East Texas, to practice law. He had a distinguished legal career fighting for many causes — including my right to graduate from Longview High School.

In 1971, a few of us decided to publish an alternative paper to the official LHS organ. It was a mild-mannered protest against some of the administration’s policies and provided us the opportunity to write the type of prose and polemics one would expect of high school students. The principal took offense despite the fact it was not distributed on campus but at the one corner of a four-way stop that was privately owned. It was a dentist’s office, then and now. After a few weeks of back and forth, and a trip to speak to the school board, he expelled me and the cartoonist — permanently, as he put it. I got in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union, which put me in touch with Bill Kugle. My dad and I drove to Athens and met with him. Within days, he had filed an injunction to get us back in school with U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice. He quickly granted it. Justice — one of my heroes — ordered us reinstated and tied our case to a similar one already in the federal appeals court system. Our case never went to trial, and I graduated from Longview High School. We folded the paper after four issues for lack of funding. The principal should have just waited us out and saved the district some legal fees.

Kugle charged nothing for his services in representing us. After his death in 1992, at the age of 67, he was interred in the Texas State Cemetery. His epitaph reads: He never voted for Republicans and had little to do with them.

God rest his soul.

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