The Grave Marker

What words do you engrave on a headstone for your mother and father?

How can you properly summarize not just one life, but two?

My sister and niece and I puzzled over this question one recent Saturday. It was a week before the internment ceremony, when their ashes would be brought to the cemetery—we had to turn in the form that day. They were being buried together in the Veteran’s Cemetery, and would share a single headstone—he would be on one side, and she would be on the other.

So where did we start?

Where you can start anything these days: Google.

Very easily, we found 101 Beautiful Epitaph Examples. Butthe problem with this site was that most of the examples made us cry. Our mother sleeps. When will the morning come?We never lose the one we love forever. Though he’s gone, within the hearts of those who cared, his memory lingers on.

Many of them were also way longer than the three 15-character lines we were allowed on each side. We sat there around my sister’s dining room table, scratching out options on bits of paper and wiping our eyes, trying to figure out how to summarize two lives in six lines.

There were a few possibilities that might work for both: They are gone from our home, but not from our heart. But which side do we put that on? And besides that, it was depressing.

The day my father died, my niece posted on Facebook that at least he was now able to dance with my mother again. During their 40-some-odd years together, my parents had gone on a number of cruises, where they took ballroom dance lessons—they loved learning the Cha-Cha, the Tango, and the proper way to waltz on board ship. So on his side, we decided to engrave DANCING WITH MY / BRIDE AGAIN / FLY FREE 88.

My father loved airplanes—as a teen in Long Beach, California, he had been trained to serve as a spotter during WWII, and he could identify almost any plane he saw. He later joined the Air Force.

The 88? That was their secret code. We found it written on old letters to each other, and it’s engraved on a pewter horse our mother had given to our father. We liked putting that on there, even though at the time we didn’t know what it meant. (My sister later Googled that too, before it was etched in granite, and found out it means “hugs and kisses.” So that was safe enough.)

The cemetery also allowed us to put a religious symbol on the top—and while our parents were not at all religious, our father had collected eagles. So we were happy to see that an eagle was an option—that would make him happy.

Our mother’s side was a bit trickier. We did discuss that because our dad’s side was written in first person, mom’s had to be too (the good grammarians that we are). We considered a bunch of options: She skied, but loved the sea, yet loved her family more. That could work, because our mother did love the ocean and her family….except she didn’t like skiing. What could we substitute for skiing? Singing? She was studying to be an opera singer when she met my father. We could easily write that in first person.

But after half an hour or so tossing out ideas, my niece had a suggestion. She said, “Well, it could be sacrilegious, but how about “I’M NOT DONE, I’M FINISHED?” My sister and I laughed. Our mother had constantly corrected our English, whether it was because of us improperly using “me” when it should have been “I”, or “good” versus “well,” or there was that time I argued with her about “a historical event.” She insisted I needed to say “an historical event,” and I thought that sounded silly. I looked it up, and she was right.

Whenever we were with our mother eating dinner, when we finished, if we said,” I’m done,” and tried to get up from the table, she’d interrupt us and say, “Hams are done, people are finished.”

She insisted that a person can’t be “done” with something. Not proper English. I’M NOT DONE, I’M FINISHED would be just right.

But then what would we do with the third line? We decided simply to close it with the name that her grandchildren called her: LOVE, MENGA.

My mother hated wakes, and funerals, and cemeteries, and anything to do with death. So to find something on her headstone that would make us smile was exactly what she would want.

It was immediately clear to my sister and niece and I that this was the way to go. We knew every time we saw their headstone, we’d laugh—both sides would make us smile as we remembered our parents. These things are supposed to be about celebrating life, not about always mourning, right? Memories should sometimes make us happy, not always sad, right?

The headstone has been set, and there they are, back to back, resting peacefully in Boscawen, NH. We know that every time we visit them, they will be there smiling right beside us.