The ultimate parting shots

Because humour never dies

As a kid growing up in Tiruchi in the early 1950s, I wandered around a desolate cemetery near home, alone and unafraid, idly reading the names and inscriptions on the weather-beaten tombstones. It was a serene place with only the muffled cacophony of distant traffic filtering through.

The acronym ‘RIP’ on the graves intrigued my imaginative six-year-old mind no end, leading me to believe that those buried there had died painfully of rips inflicted by a murderous, knife-wielding Ripper! It was some time before dad rid me of this misconception.

The epitaphs on the graves, I recall, were uniformly sober and deferential, honouring the memory of the deceased. It was, after all, the final tribute the grieving kin could pay the departed soul. So I thought there could be no room for flippancy in such a grave matter as epitaphs.

However, this myth has been busted by the irreverent world we live in today. Witty and even hilarious epitaphs are catching on in the West, especially in USA, with some appearing in verse too. While flaunting the epitaph-writer’s levity, the underlying intention seems to be to assuage the grief and mourning that inevitably accompany death.

Among the funnier epitaphs I’ve come across are ‘Rust in peace’ for an ironmonger, ‘Jest in peace’ for a comedian, ‘Gone underground’ for a spy, ‘God finally caught his eye’ for a waiter and ‘I will not be right back after this message’ for a TV talk show host. Then there are the versified ones like ‘I buried my wife beneath this stone / For her repose and for my own’, ‘Beneath this stone lies a merry lass/Who aimed for the brake but hit the gas’, and ‘Here lies the body of Emily White /She signalled left and then turned right.’

Winston Churchill’s epitaph is hilarious, to say the least: ‘I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.’ A gay Vietnam veteran’s epitaph reads: ‘When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing several men and a discharge for loving one’. And the gravestone of a couple bears this telling tale: ‘We finally found a place to park!’

Most epitaphs, however, are laudatory in nature, voicing the sentiments of the deceased’s loved ones. Perhaps this prompted Henry David Thoreau, American author and naturalist, to make the caustic comment: ‘The rarest quality in an epitaph is truth’.

It possibly also spurred American novelist Paul Eldridge to quip, ‘Reading the epitaphs, our only salvation seems to lie in resurrecting the dead and burying the living!’

And talking of cemeteries, I’m reminded of a Scotsman in Munnar who was once requested to fund the fencing of a local cemetery. ‘There’s no need to fence the cemetery!’ he shrewdly pointed out. ‘Those inside can’t come out — and those outside don’t want to get in!’

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The ultimate parting shots

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