Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More
The poet and memoirist Primo Levi was buried in Turin in 1987. According to a notice printed in the New York Times shortly after his funeral, “His grave was marked with a simple marble headstone giving his name and the dates of his birth and death.” At some later date, a sequence of six numbers was carved into the stone in the space below his name, the same sequence that had been tattooed on Levi’s left arm upon his arrival at Auschwitz.
I have not been able to discover whether or not Levi himself had left instructions in his will, or had told family members, that the sequence 174517 should be inscribed on his stone. In her biography of Levi, The Double Bond, Carole Angier explains that the six men who lowered Levi’s coffin into the grave were all concentration or death camp survivors, and that among the mourners who followed the body to the cemetery were scores of Holocaust survivors “wearing neck-scarves marked with the names of their camps.” Could the revision of his stone have been the wish of Levi’s “survivors”? However it was, the sequence is the most striking and original part of his epitaph, and, set against even a bare skeleton of Levi’s life story, its use here offers us redeeming fictions. On the marble face of his headstone, the sequence is a kind of postlinguistic, numerical poem. Read More
The second in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here.
There is very little that’s puzzling about Philip Larkin’s two-penny upright “This Be the Verse” (1971):
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can.
And don’t have any kids yourself.
“This Be the Verse” is arguably the best-loved English poem of the last half of the twentieth century. Funny, frank, transgressive—human—the poem has stood up admirably in pub, alley, and classroom. (Of how many humans with fancy titles can this be said?) But what about that awkward title? How did a writer as good as Larkin fuck up his forms of to be?
The title’s oddness is no empty gesture. The words “This Be the Verse” point us toward one of the sweetest, un-Larkin-esque poems in the language, Robert Louis Stevenson’s self-composed epitaph. When it’s published in an anthology, it usually appears as two stanzas called “Requiem,” but on Stevenson’s tomb, the epitaph is presented as a single block under his name and dates, without punctuation or title: Read More
The first in a three-part series on writers’ epitaphs.
“In lapidary inscriptions, a man is not upon oath.” —Samuel Johnson
Got a brittle, expensive medium? Bring an elastic ethics.
Dr. Johnson understood that words on headstones provide cover stories. Acts of make-believe inscribed in stone may be as banal as an incorrect—or fudged—year of birth; the phrase “In Loving Memory” must be a fiction much of the time. On the other hand, great writers have composed words for headstones, real and imaginary, that offer us complex fictions in which we may dwell, as if in compensation for loss. For such writers, good grief is infused with imagination.
Witness this epitaph in the collection of the Yale Library, from an autograph manuscript composed circa 1728: Read More