“Epitaph” is the fancy word for it. It’s sort of two words in Greek: “Epi” and “taph” from the Greek preposition epi meaning “over” and the word táphos meaning “tomb.” Perhaps it’s not by chance that it doesn’t take much to get the word for “tomb” (táphos) confused with the word that means “humble” or “lowly” (tapeinós).
There are other words “over a grave,” of course, but they are not the epitaph. A name given. And then other things given and taken. A date to mark the gift of first breath and a date to mark when the last breath was finally taken once and for all.
But once you list these basic identifiers, how then do you sum up the fulfilled hopes and unrealized dreams, the great successes and hidden failures, the trusts and offenses given and taken in a single life? Enter the epitaph. The most basic of poems.
Some are short and to the point. Take for example, Rest in Peace or the epitaph of Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig): That’s all folks. Some are amusing. Like Winston Churchill’s epitaph: I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter. Some are short and funny, such as comedian Spike Milligan’s: I told you I was sick. Some are more about the living than the dead. Think W.H. Auden’s epitaph for the “unknown soldier,” which asks the reader: To save your world you asked this man to die: Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?
At a recent conference for pastors the presenter, Rev. Dr. Susan Briehl, confessed what she hoped her epitaph to be – a simple paraphrase of the promise Jesus makes in chapter fourteen and verse eighteen of John’s Gospel: She was not orphaned.
As trees begin to put on their autumn colors these days, it recalls the great and marvelous beauty confined in these brief, humble lives of ours. We trust that after months of standing naked and shivering through the winter, the trees will once again be dressed in spring blossom. So too, from the first breath to the final, we are called not only to ask what legacy we will leave on this earth; but also to trust in the great promise that life and death alike are somehow unfolding in the fullness of God’s mystery and grace. Even in our deaths, God’s love will blossom through us.
It is a promise that stands not just “over a grave,” but over death itself: that God’s love is stronger than death. That if we have been united in a death like Christ’s, then so too we will be united in a resurrection like Christ’s. And that we are not orphans in this life, no matter what death does in our lives.
Blessings to you and yours this fall and may your epitaphs be a long time in coming.