Put No Headstone on My Grave

Don’t put no headstone on my grave
All my life, I’ve been a slave
I want the whole wide world to know
Here that I’m the man that loved, that loved

Charlie Rich

Headstones can tell us a lot, and elicit all kinds of responses. In the minimalist version, the cemetery becomes a kind of directory.

Buried in Westminster Abbey, Sir Isaac Newton’s memorial statue in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, of which he was a distinguished member, is inscribed “Qui genus humanum ingenio superavit” (He surpassed the race of man in understanding).

Everybody lives his life with stigmas, fears, phobias, paranoia, false pride, honorary titles, relationship bonds, and so on. Why should we carry the burden of all these to the grave? Not every culture has epitaphs. Had I not been Hindu, I would have made a will not put any headstone on my grave.

We tend to match a person’s years to events in the world, a man of 20, say, who died in the years of war, or a person who lived a long life, or a short one. ‘Grandfather’ elicits no feeling as the man died after completing his natural life.

But ‘grandchild’ intimates great sadness, and I wonder what someone might have died from and if their premature death really was the only legacy they left behind.

To my perception, the real meaning in a headstone is not the years of birth and death at all, but the space in between them, sometimes noted in a hyphen, sometimes just blank.

Those are the years in which a person made choices that shaped their life. A person comes into this materialistic world involuntarily, after all, and in most cases leaves that way, too.

Have you ever visited a war cemetery of World War II to pay homage to the soldiers and prisoners of war who died of bullet wounds, starvation, cholera, dengue fever and malaria? If you haven’t, please don’t.

Your eyes will be filled with tears while reading messages from parents, siblings and wives… terrible cries from broken hearts. We do not visit graves. Once a person is dead, we visit memories.

The messages from the living to the dead… the epitaphs preserving their terrible losses and giving them all a voice, almost in a ghostly way in this most concise literary form, from the grave.

It took real effort to find the cemetery in Lower Burma, but in Greenland, the world’s largest island, it will be impossible to miss it. Greenlanders don’t use epitaphs, not even names.

Greenlanders are officially Evangelical Lutherans but retain many of the beliefs of their Inuit heritage, including that every person consists of a body, a spirit, and a name.

When the body perishes, the spirit and the name travel together in search of a new body. This is what a Hindu also believe in. Bhagwat Gita also says that the soul is immortal. So be it.

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