'I told you I was ill'... and other epitaphs
Published 25/01/2007 | 00:11
It is the only opportunity most of us will have to get our words literally set in stone. And when it comes to writing your epitaph it is better to be self-effacing than self-important.
The Oscar-nominated Irish actor Peter O'Toole said recently he was inspired by a note from a dry cleaner for the inscription which he wants on his gravestone: "It distresses us to return work which is not perfect."
The cleaner sent back the note after receiving his leather jacket stained with Guinness, whiskey, blood and cornflakes.
O'Toole's proposed epitaph is preferable to the inscription recently chosen for the grave of the former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook: "I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war."
In fairness to Cook, the line was chosen by his family from one of his pronouncements. It was not a purpose-built farewell. Like a funeral oration, the epitaph isn't a place for settling scores.
Some epitaphs attributed to famous people do not actually appear on their gravestones. The following bon mot is listed as Winston Churchill's epitaph on countless internet sites: "I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."
The actual gravestone has no such message.
On a gravestone in the South of England there is a genuine epitaph that keeps the voice of its creator alive: "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite." In English Spike Milligan's memorable epitaph reads "I told you I was ill."
The line was reportedly inscribed in Irish in the Essex cemetery to avoid giving offence to other mourners.
Groucho Marx wished to be remembered on his gravestone with the inscription: "Excuse me, I can't stand up". But sadly, the wisecracker's family did not comply with his wish.
The writer and wit Dorothy Parker suffered the same misfortune. Her preferred inscription was: "Excuse my dust".
The wishes of actor WC Fields were complied with. When he was buried in Glendale, California, he left the epitaph: "Here lies WC Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia".
As the voice of Bugs Bunny Mel Blanc came up with an appropriate gravestone credit: "That's all folks!"
As with most literature, brevity is the soul of wit when it comes to epitaphs. In another parting shot that is more apocryphal than factual, the poet John Donne and his wife Anne were said to have gone out with: "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone".