From tattoos to epitaphs, short messages can have powerful meanings

A much overlooked canvas for short writing is the human body. Think of the scene in the bar when a young woman writes her phone number on the back of a suitor’s hand. Think of the reporter who surreptitiously scribbles the name of a source on her palm. Think of all those sailors with the names of sweethearts inked on their arms.

Ben Montgomery, a reporter for Poynter's St. Petersburg Times, has a tattoo on his forearm that reads "the TRUTH." My choice would be the indefinite article "A truth" or, perhaps, other tattoo ideas like "Ambiguity."

When Casey Anthony was being tried in Orlando for the murder of her young daughter, much was made of a tattoo Casey purchased in the days after her child disappeared. On her shoulder appear the words “Bella Vita,” Italian for “Good Life.” In the absence of a definite or indefinite article, it was not clear whether the words should be translated “TheGood Life,” a celebration of her newfound freedom, or “A Good Life,” in memory of her lost daughter.

“The body may be a temple,” wrote Bryan Kirk of Harker Heights, Texas, “but it can also be a canvas, and to some a walking memorial.” Kirk reported on soldiers who have the names of fallen comrades tattooed on their bodies. Staff Sgt. Chris Maust wears 18 names of the dead: “Eighteen dog tags with the names of the men he called friends form a semicircle on his back and outline an image of a Cavalry Stetson placed on the butt of a rifle buried in a pair of cavalry boots.”

St. Petersburg Times reporter Lane DeGregory advises narrative writers to "let the walls talk," to notice the signs of character that people post on their car bumpers, T-shirts or office walls. An addendum could be, "Let their skin talk."

When Nick Schuyler survived a boat accident in the Gulf of Mexico that killed three of his friends, part of his emotional recovery included a memorial of ink on his right arm.  A cross and anchor frame the initials of his dead friends and the Persian proverb: “In the hour of adversity, be not without hope.”

Because it can be painful and expensive to remove a tattoo, there is a connotation of permanency implied in the process of getting or giving one. So too in carving a message onto metal or into stone.

Words on a monument raise the ante. Consider that the 10-word inscription on the new MLK monument ("I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness") has come under attack from poet Maya Angelou as inaccurate and out-of-context, making Dr. King look like "an arrogant twit."

That practice of verbal enshrinement is as old as written language itself, which explains, I suppose, our fascination with cemeteries, especially the ones where the gravestones go back decades or centuries.

Phil Spector, the famous music producer (now in prison for murder), recorded a famous rock ballad with a group called the Teddy Bears. It was titled “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” the words carved on the gravestone of his father, who killed himself in 1949, when Phil was just 9 years old.

Here is a list of famous epitaphs collected from the website 2Spare:

  • "My Jesus, mercy" — Al Capone
  • "The best is yet to come." — Frank Sinatra
  • "This is the last of Earth! I am content!" — John Quincy Adams
  • "That's all, folks!" — Mel Blanc (the trademark line of cartoon character Porky Pig, whose voice was provided by Blanc for many years)
  • "Don't Try" — Charles Bukowski (American poet, daring anyone tempted to deface his gravestone with bad rhyme)
  • "She did it the hard way" — Bette Davis
  • "I had a lover's quarrel with the world" — Robert Frost
  • "Hey Ram" (Translated "Oh, God") — Mahatma Gandhi
  • "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I'm Free At Last." — Martin Luther King Jr.
  • "Truth to your own spirit" — Jim Morrison
  • "Curiosity did not kill this cat." — Studs Terkel
  • "I told you so, you damned fools." — H. G. Wells
  • "Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!" — Virginia Woolf

Consider the differences in these messages, even though their purpose is the same: to mark the passing of a life into death. Some are prayers, poems, songs, excerpts and pieces of oratory. Some choices are solemn, others playful; some are grounded (so to speak), others abstract; some are borrowed, others new; some are spoken by the dead, others by the living.

As I was thinking of the grammar and rhetoric of epitaphs, I received a message from an old college friend Joe Morrissey. His younger brother Bill Morrissey was found dead in a Georgia motel room, the victim of living a life as a traveling troubadour.

I had never met Bill, but I knew him from his high school days as a remarkably creative person. That creativity would lead to a career as a novelist, songwriter and prominent folk balladeer. When Joe called me, he and his family were trying to figure out how a headstone above Bill's grave should read. They wanted special words, after all, for a man of the word. Joe asked if I would help.

This seemed like a special challenge, capturing the spirit of a man in a handful of un-revise-able words. When we speak about the tentative nature of language, we often use the truism, “It’s not written in stone, after all.” But what if it is to be written in stone?

Rounder Records issued a collection of Bill Morrissey’s best work, so my first thought was to listen to Bill’s voice and to hear and then study his lyrics. From 20 songs, I selected 18 lyrical bits, a goodly number.

Bill, it turns out, wrote songs about the bottle, grief, death and the afterlife, and even his worldly tunes have a thematic momentum, a sense that the narrator is headed somewhere -- for better or worse. I picked out my favorites:

  • "I can’t believe it gets this cold in Barstow."
  • "He’d cross the other side."
  • "I quit keeping score."
  • "I think I’ll take a nap."
  • "Finally paid his tab/and kept a dollar for the toll."
  • "The dog can’t move no more."
  • "It’s a great life when you’re dead."
  • "I’m going steady with Patsy Cline."
  • "I bought Robert Johnson a beer."
  • "Get out while you can."
  • "You’ll never get to heaven/if you don’t stop talking."
  • "I’ve been long gone."
  • "I couldn’t stay long/here in the land of snow."

Joe promises to send me a photo of his brother’s gravestone when it is completed.  The family will have to “curate” this list and other suggestions to decide on the words that will help keep Bill’s spirit alive, long after this generation has passed, long after we are dust in the wind.

One thing is certain: The epitaph, if it's good, is likely to be short enough to work as a tattoo, what a new anthology of literary tattoos describes as "The Word Made Flesh."

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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