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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 10:11 pm

Who gets the last word?

Epitaphs — that about sums it up

On the curving wall behind Abraham Lincoln's marble sarcophagus are the words attributed to Secretary of War Edward Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages."
Poet and critic Helen Vendler has observed that an epitaph is a form of lyric that must, among other traits, “assert a final judgment.” Ah, but whose? Composing the words to adorn one’s gravestone is one of those end-of-life chores that most people put off until it’s too late, like telling the kids about that half-sister they didn’t know they had. Besides, how can you sum up a life that hasn’t been lived yet? So the final judgments about one’s life and personality often get written by family or friends.

One Billy Skaggs died in December 2007 and was buried in an unmarked grave. According to what we learn about Skaggs in Dave Bakke’s column, Skaggs was an eager volunteer and visitor to the lonely, so when his friends bought a marker for his grave they adorned it with the words, “He served others.” A noble sentiment — although Skaggs himself might have preferred “20” or whatever was the number of deer he’d seen on the last of his regular visits to the wildlife sanctuary near Chatham.

Edgar Lee Masters presumed to compose epitaphs for a whole village of people, which make up the Spoon River Anthology. One of his fictive dead laments, “Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph/Graven by a fool!” That the fool in this case is Masters is a joke that probably had to be pointed out to the sour Masters. Certainly he was foolish in choosing his own rather bathetic poem, “To-morrow is My Birthday” for his own gravestone in Petersburg.

It is natural that poets should think that poems would make the best epitaphs. Masters wrote of Vachel Lindsay’s “The Beggar’s Valentine,” “What fitter epitaph could Lindsay have?” The one he gave himself, in my opinion; Lindsay’s grave is marked with a stone that bears only his name and dates and the single word: “Poet.”

Walt Whitman wrote a poem in the form of an epitaph too, but his was for Mr. Lincoln. “This Dust Was Once the Man” reads in part, “Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand/ . . . /Was saved the Union of These States.” That was Lincoln’s intention as president certainly, although whether he would have liked to have people reminded in perpetuity of his role in giving the U.S. Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush we will never know.

Happily, Whitman’s words do not appear on Lincoln’s tomb. Instead, the frieze overlooking his cenotaph bears the words uttered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton at the president’s deathbed in 1865: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

It is one of the most famous of all epitaphs. There is some dispute — with Lincoln there is always some dispute — about whether those words are exactly the ones spoken by Stanton that night. Scholars of the right, most of them believers eager to claim Lincoln as a conventional Christian, argue that Stanton didn’t say it because that’s not the sort of thing Stanton would have said. What Stanton must have said was “Now he belongs to the angels.”

The whole god problem was one that Lincoln was working on when he was murdered, but he was no more conventional in his beliefs about such things than he was about anything else. By turning the man and moment into a scene out of Victorian genre painting, “angels” does an injustice to both.

Having said all that, however, it must be admitted that, sometimes, other people know best. Most people can’t be trusted to write their own epitaphs. People usually lie on their gravestones, to make themselves look good or their enemies look bad, or to sneak into heaven. Family and friends lie too, but their motives are better — to make the dear departed look less a prat than he really was.

And sometimes they know the d.d. better. I was reminded of that while reading the tribute paid upon the death in 1886 of John A. Logan, Union Army general and U.S. senator, the man who helped get southern Illinois into the Civil War and the North out of it. Springfield worthy Judge W. L. Gross described him as an honored citizen, a patriotic statesman, a gallant and tried soldier and a true friend.

Logan seemed most proud of his role in making Memorial Day a national holiday (to the extent of exaggerating his role on its invention). No doubt an epitaph of his own device would have read something like, “Father of Memorial Day, no matter what Waterloo, N. Y., says.” However, his friends thought that another of his achievements in a long and busy life merited memorializing on his grave, one that was all the more remarkable for it having been achieved in Illinois. “If it were given us to write his epitaph,” Gross said, “it would be,
John A. Logan,
After Forty Years of Faithful Public Service,
Died Poor.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.
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