Call it the ultimate in underground humor. For a book published earlier this year, television personality Larry King posed an unusual question to public figures and celebrities: "How would you like to be remembered after your death?" More than 300 people responded to his query, providing King with the material for "Remember Me When I'm Gone: The Rich and Famous Write Their Own Epitaphs and Obituaries."
Among the last words are actor Stacy Keach's lighthearted verse, "Here lies Stacy Keach / A Georgia peach / Lived at the beach / Now out of reach"; comedian Howie Mandel's last laugh, "Is It Me or Is It Dark in Here?"; and former secretary of state Alexander Haig Jr.'s parting shot, "He Really Was in Charge." The book encouraged well-known figures in the arts, politics and entertainment to reflect on their lives and leave a closing thought for posterity.
But without a call from Larry King, most of the rest of us aren't writing our postscripts. Of the more than 2 million people who die each year in the United States, three-quarters are buried, most with monuments inscribed with simply a name and date to mark their final resting place. Paul DiMatteo, vice president of Monument Builders of North America, a Chicago-based trade organization, says the oversight is a grave mistake.
"People should take the time to do some thinking about how they'd like to be remembered," DiMatteo says. "The monument is there forever. It's the last permanent thing you can ever create. It's an opportunity to share your life and the things most important to you with future generations."
In the past, DiMatteo says, stones were hand-chiseled, a labor-intensive process that limited options to simple shapes and brief sentiments. Modern technology now allows monuments to be cut into a variety of forms -- and techniques such as sandblasting and laser etching are used to create scenes and portraits on the stone. New products, including vases, lighting and photographs, also can be added to personalize monuments.
"The choices are endless," DiMatteo says. "Pictures of their homes, their families, their pets, even their cars. Scriptures and verses. If people have an idea of what they want, we can usually do it."
As gravestone technology has evolved, so have consumer attitudes toward what could be called the "Final Sale." According to the National Funeral Directors Association, more and more individuals are planning their own funerals, to relieve families of the responsibility of making difficult decisions and to ensure that everything from the service to the monument reflects their beliefs and wishes.
DiMatteo, who owns a monument business in South Portland, Maine, has done gravestones with portraits of NASCAR cars and drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, and memorials in a variety of shapes, such as a large baseball glove supported by two crossed bats for an avid baseball fan. Inscriptions have included favorite quotations, poems and song lyrics.
Individuals opting for cremation also are seeking unique memorials such as park sculptures or granite benches -- and making arrangements for them to be placed beside a favorite river, lake or golf course.
DiMatteo has given much thought to his own grave decor. He'd like a mausoleum with bronze doors, a stained-glass window, an etching of his wedding photo, and an epitaph that includes an autobiography.
"I'm trying to get things arranged ahead of time to be sure my wife doesn't choose a stone on her grave that reads, 'I'm with stupid,' and an arrow pointing to where I'm buried," DiMatteo says. "Seriously, if you plan ahead, you avoid hurried decisions that may not ultimately be what you or your family wants. You can consider options with a clear mind and create a resting place that provides comfort and peace to your loved ones."