Eleanor Herman, a historian and author who lives in McLean, feels most people take death far too seriously. Where is the levity? Where is the humor? Where is the winking admission that death is the final joke in this long-running sitcom we call life?
Well, on her tombstone, for starters. She’s determined to have the last laugh.
Eleanor isn’t dead yet, but when she and sister Christine buried their mother in 2001 at Baltimore’s Lorraine Park Cemetery, they were told tombstones are cheaper if ordered in bulk. So the sisters decided to buy theirs. They also got one for their Uncle Walter, whose grave in the family plot had been unmarked since his death 17 years earlier.
Eleanor didn’t want the boring text that adorns most grave markers: the name, rank and serial number; all that “Loving Wife. Rest in Peace” business. Here’s what she wrote for their uncle, a cigar-chomping lady’s man who was married six times:
Uncle Walter loved to spend.
He had no money in the end.
But with many a whiskey,
And many a wife,
He really did enjoy his life.
Christine is a leading dog portrait painter, with clients who include Oprah Winfrey. Here’s what Eleanor composed for her:
To the victor go the spoils
Christine painted well with oils
Painted dogs both big and small
All the canines short and tall
Oodles of poodles, mutts and schnauzers
Shepherds and spaniels and furry bow wowsers
Witty, pretty, good and kind
She leaves her lovely art behind.
And then there is Eleanor’s own inscription. At the top is the legend: One Errant Female Has Fun. Eleanor explained that it’s an anagram of her name: Eleanor Stauffen Herman.
“I met an anagramist at a party and asked him to do my name and then I had it chiseled on my tombstone,” said Eleanor, whose books include “Mistress of the Vatican” and “Sex with the Queen.”
Then comes Eleanor’s tongue-in-cheek ode to herself:
The ornament of her generation
Beautiful, witty, brilliant, talented,
Elegant, charming, frugal and modest.
Erected by herself.
Eleanor said she can envision her interment. She’s dead and people are crying. As she’s being lowered into her final resting place a drape is pulled from her marker. “And everyone bursts out laughing,” she said. “I want to leave them laughing.”
Not everyone sees the humor. Eleanor says some of her cousins are not amused. At the funeral of an aunt, they covered the funny tombstones with black trash bags, lest they mar the solemnity of the occasion. One cousin threatened to move Eleanor’s tombstones. Eleanor’s retort? “I said over my dead body.”
But the inscriptions have fans, including the people who work at the cemetery. “They were all waiting there to shake my hand,” Eleanor said. They told her that whenever they get depressed at work — they are around death all day, after all — they walk up to her family plot to lift their spirits.
Grave humor is rare, said Kevin Roustazad, owner of Eastern Memorials in Manassas, a monumental engraving company. “We live in an extremely conservative part of the country,” he told me. “It’s very, very seldom that I see a monument that has any humorous writing on it in this area. Honest to god. You’re getting this from someone who has an interest in going out and actually looking.”
Kevin said he wishes more people would lighten up on their tombstones. So does Eleanor. “I was sort of hoping to start a movement,” she said. “People should take these grave matters into their own hands and start preparing what they really want to say about themselves. Once you’re gone, that’s really it.”
If you’ve seen a humorous tombstone in our area send me the details. I found a few others. To see photos of them — including a grave that reads “We finally found a place to park in Georgetown!” — go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
We’ve had death, now let’s do taxes. Jenny Yacovissi wrote that her mother, Bethesda’s Jean V. Bort, has been cleaning out files that accumulated over the years. Among the relics she unearthed: a 1977 communication from the IRS. A hand-written communication.
The note from an IRS employee corrected a miscalculation, promised a refund and apologized for a missing return envelope. Wrote Jenny: “Add in a signature and a direct telephone number, and the sense is complete of having ripped into the fabric of space/time. Or it’s just that I’m old and 1977 — which seems awfully recent to me — really was every bit of 36 years ago.”