The fragility of life
N J Ravi Chander
When a tiny tot, the pictures of people on the obituary page always piqued my curiosity. I observed that my maternal grandfather, M Dharmalingam, scanned the page every morning. Whenever a familiar face kicked the bucket, and his/her picture appeared in the newspaper, the sad news would travel to those in his close circle. An uncle, engrossed in looking at the obituary page when prodded one day, looked up and remarked in jest, “Just checking to see if my picture figures here”.
The obituary pages are usually dull, but regular readers of the column can spot the odd funnies that could tickle you to death. They mirror the lives lived in a humourous, sentimental or boldly honest way.
One tearjerker goes, “I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back”. An obituary that appeared in The New York Times following the death of Princess Diana reads, “Princess Diana, who was beloved, yet troubled by her crown”. Another hilarious epitaph that went viral is of Mike “Flathead” Blanchard. Etched on stone, it reads “He enjoyed booze, guns, cars and younger women until the day he died”.
Creative juices begin to flow when reading some of the epitaphs on the tombstones. Some mind-blowing ones include, “Here lies good old Fred, a great big rock fell on his head”, “It does my heart a world of good, to see you in a box of wood”, “Old Ma Walker, non-stop talker, ran out of breath, talked herself top death” and “Don’t laugh, you’re next”. The epitaph inscribed on the Kohima War cemetery dedicated to the soldiers of the 2nd British Division of the Allied Forces who died in the Second World War at Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, would make anybody’s eyes moist. The famous lines read, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.”
The obits and epitaphs are as old as the hills, and one can gather the history of an area, community and the dead by reading them. Collecting epitaphs and obits have also become an exciting pastime for the young and the old, and many curious city-dwellers have plunged headlong into this hobby. I have also read stories of individuals having a marker inscribed when still alive and kicking. The epitaphs on tombstones are your last words to the dead, and they’re literally written in stone.
Today we do not confine the obits and epitaphs to humans alone, but to pet animals and birds too. There are hundreds of pet cemeteries all over the world dedicated to our ‘best friends’ from the animal kingdom. Many cities like Bengaluru even boast of private burial grounds for pets.
A moving epitaph at a pet cemetery in Kengeri says, “You are the son of the family”. Yet another reads “Our beloved daughter”. They lay bare the deep sorrow and anguish on losing a pet to illness or accident.
Sometime back, while flipping through the pages of a local daily, it shocked me to come across a familiar face on the obituary page. The photograph was that of a dear classmate who had died in a car crash. One moment he was at the wheel, the next he was not around anymore. The untimely death reminded me of the fragility of life and taught me to be grateful for every day we live.
(The author is a retired banker who has taken up writing as a pastime. He writes for the Deccan Herald, The New Indian Express, The Tribune, The Hitavada, The City Tab, The Hans India and Kashmir Vision)