Young Mortality


SIR WALTER SCOTT wrote a book about Old Mortality, which leaves the way clear for Young Mortality to speak for himself.

This I now propose to do. Not that I am one of those limbs of the new generation who, in speaking of themselves, imply that their predecessors were a mere overture to the masterpiece. No; history, if it notices me at all, will set me down as an anticlimax. When Mortality fils remembers Mortality père, it is with piety, affection, and no little envy.

He was a Scotch eccentric, you will recall, who devoted his life to the unpaid task of marking the graves of the martyred Cameronians, or, if others had marked them, of keeping those gravestones in repair. And the Cameronians —

But, gentle reader, lay your hand on your heart, and tell me: are you recently informed on the Cameronian question? Or, like myself, do you have to brush up on these matters, which cleverer but less delightful people seem to imbibe unforgettably with their mothers’ milk? If the latter, let me explain that the Cameronians were a sect of Scotch Borderlanders who were in opposition to certain policies of the last Stuart kings. These policies, for reasons of state, sought to revive Scotch jollity; shooting the popinjay, Maypole dancing, bagpipe playing, were decreed as state duties, which jollity the Cameronians deplored. Still more wry were the wrinkles around their mouths when they mentioned the Stuarts’ popish religion; and so they refused to be jolly and shoot the popinjay, and would not dance, nor pipe, nor have any doings with the Devil — all of which the government found first annoying, then treasonable, till at last these good people had the satisfaction of dying martyrs to their creed.

Some even were marched a great way from their Border towns, fiddlers and pipers turning out along the road to taunt them with music, and so died in the cells of strange castle prisons, and were buried in pits in the moors. But to all these places Old Mortality came in later years, riding a skinny white horse like Don Quixote, with his tools in a pouch, and a blue bonnet on his graying head. The fallen stones he lifted up, those askew he turned straight, and brushed the moss from the epitaphs. And where no stone was, among those graves, he cut one, and put it up, with the emblems of death carved on it in a plain rude style, together with an account of the martyrs’ heroism.

He had abandoned his wife and children to follow this hobby. At first his wife sent one boy, then another, to entreat him to come home. But she seemed to understand why he always refused; she took to school-teaching, reared her boys to honor the father who had left them, and so had the grace to make a bad matter no worse.

When Old Mortality died, he was away as usual. The snows were too deep to permit bringing his body home; it was buried where the soul had gone out from it, very likely in the churchyard where the ring of his mallet was heard the last time. And then, one neglect leading to another, his grave was left unmarked until nobody was sure where it was; thus it was never marked at all, which is an odd end to the story of a man who had spent his life marking the graves of others.

It would seem that his countrymen were a thankless lot, to treat the old man so. But actually they treated him well. It was a household boast to have entertained him on his faithful rounds; he lived in stories told in the taverns or by the fire; and Scott put him in a novel, which guarantees that he will be remembered until the next ice age. Toward keeping his memory green, a block of flint over his grave, as big as a bus, could do no more than the title of that one book.

In fact it might do less. Certainly public subscriptions in American cities have reared monuments to men who headed the waterworks board, or partook in the carnage of some war or other, or died rich, and yet I have never happened to hear of them. I know this to be true, because when I am visiting a city new to me these obelisks and statues loom up. ‘Never forget So-and-So!’ they implore, which is the duty of monuments, and thus I learn for the first time of So-and-So’s existence.

But Old Mortality, all the while, in his unmarked grave in far-off Scotland, — or King Alfred in his, in England, or poor little Mozart in his pauper’s grave in music-loving Vienna, — has an earthly immortality which no monument (short of a Taj Mahal or Great Pyramid) could give. He lives in the stories people never tire of telling, as King Alfred does, or as Mozart lives in the music that haunts our brains.

Keats, for the same reason, could well let his gravestone stand nameless, with merely ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ on it. Snubbed by the critics, he died never guessing what homage the future was to pay him. But his friends did: they saw that his name was writ in the water of immortality. And sure enough, the biographies very nicely have taken care of the vital statistics his gravestone so eloquently omitted.


With us Joneses and Smiths and Thompsons, however, matters are different. We must take care not to be forgotten.

First we are ‘grandfather,’ then ‘my great-grandfather,’ and after that, unless we have taken care, we live no more. ‘Oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy’; our names drop out of the talk of the world, and whether we were shoemakers or sailors to China nobody remembers.

The thought of this is disagreeable to most of us, and I suspect that those who cry out for oblivion dread its poppy most of any; their hope is to be remembered as having wished to be forgotten, and so to live on, embalmed in pathos.

Actually, however, though millions are spent every year in the purchase of gravestones, nobody reasons about their purpose very much. A man rarely buys his own. What he buys is one for his parents, because he loved them, and because graves have been marked ever since they buried Adam. Good sons do these things; and his own son, he is confident without bothering his head about it, will do the same for him. And so the son does, of course.

But just here enters the fact that makes Young Mortality’s profession so melancholy. It is not the deaths of infants or traffic victims that sadden me, but what the present generation puts on the gravestones of its parents. Assembling my letters I resentfully spell out: —



Finis! Does the ‘J’ stand for ’John’? Very likely it does. But even that innocent fact has been suppressed.

Now what manner of man, for the love of truth, was William J. ? Was he a politician, or a piano tuner? Perhaps he had a way with birds, and chickadees would feed from his hand. Perhaps he was shot by mistake during a bank robbery. Perhaps he was a wag, who embraced Mohammedanism to tease his wife, and came back from Mecca wearing a green fez.

To these perhapses the gravestone says neither yea nor nay. It has been told to keep its mouth shut, and shut it keeps it. I can be sure of only one thing about the late Mr. Jones, which is that he was no such zero, nonentity, and blank as the inscription would like to imply. No man could be who lived seventy years on this character-kinking planet.

Gloag and Walker’s Home Life in History has in it a genealogy which traces a hypothetical British family from the time of the Picts, who painted their bellies blue, to the present generation, which paints its fingernails red. Genealogical tables do not usually make me chuckle, but the recollection of this one does, because, without comment, it slyly traces the fashions in names. From the early Æthelreds and Æthelwyns it laconically descends to the classical Augustuses of Victoria’s day, which seem so humorously old-fashioned, and ends with the classical Anthonys of our own, which seem so chic.

When I think of that table I can but acknowledge that mere names can be a clue to the understanding of history. With their aid the antiquary of the future will be able, for example, to learn in the cemeteries what immigrants settled this or that American town, and a little of how the various national strains blended.

And while I make this concession to the value of mere names, let me say that I am alive to the beauty of a Quaker burying ground, or a convent’s, where the rows of graves are marked uniformly with plain names and dates. Judgment Day will establish the true precedence among us, until which time Christians do well to wait labeled in equal meekness. Next to scattering their ashes to the winds of heaven, as Lindbergh did his father’s, this is the most philosophical way of disposing of people: in the grave no man is a king. Besides, it takes up little room. The nuns’ white crosses stand like fields of lilies.

But we Joneses, Smiths, and Thompsons, for the most part, are neither nuns nor stoics. Our cities of the dead are like our cities of the living, full of inequalities of wealth and character. Our gravestones reflect the thickness of our wallets and our tastes in art. And very awful some of these reflections are; beating my breast I say it. But even the most beautiful are lumps of stone that record nothing.

This it is that makes Young Mortality envy Old Mortality, who with the tink, tink, tink of his tool spelled out the tragic story of the Cameronians on the stones he raised. He wrote history; I lay out names.

No, it is not thoughts of death that sadden Young Mortality, but of the living people of the future, to whom the gravestones that daily pass before my fishy eyes will be the most uninteresting that ever were made. Clammy and uninformative to-day, to the man who makes a living off them, what bores they will be to-morrow, to people who owe them nothing! If I am not under one myself in 2000 A. D. (but I hope that mine will be more chatty), I dread to see them all scrapped by act of Congress as too valueless to preserve. The rose of love, the ivy of memory, carved on them, will not save them. A few specimens typical of the lot will be set up in museums, and the rest — my lifework included — will be put at last to some real use, built into septic tanks, or bridges.


Why did epitaphs go out of fashion, I wonder. Was it their cost that made them unpopular? Old Mortality’s way of cutting them, which took forever on hard granite, has been superseded by new methods, rapid and cheap. Jets of abrasive dust play through perforated masks of sheet glue to cut inscriptions nowadays. Letters deeper and more brilliant than he knew how to make are incised in a fraction of the time he needed for his task.

No, it was something more subtle than expense that caused the mischief. It was the inanity of the epitaphs themselves.

A stroll through a burying ground of a hundred years ago, when epitaphs were last in fashion, is wonderfully restful. Here lies the perfect generation. What a pity these good people died! And what a marvel that we, who so incline to deviltry, should be descended from them! The fathers were kind and upright, the mothers were devoted and loving. Both were much lamented by the sorrowing and afflicted children they left behind. All rested in the hope of a blessed reunion.

Actually these old phrases are full of eloquence and beauty; the thorn in their loveliness is, however, that they can’t all be believed. Such a unanimity of virtue is too suspicious. The memoirs of those days tell of mothers that were dreadful, of fathers that were freaks. Where were they buried? Does no man or woman who was peremptory, flamboyant, tough, or tragic, lie in this still earth?

The inanity of the old set phrases, like that of the ‘Your most obedient and humble servant’ of old letters, led to their being dropped. Why it was that accurate and human epitaphs did not supplant the hackneyed and meaningless ones I can t say. Epitaph writing, like collecting bills past due, is not easy. Once the art had been allowed to lapse, perhaps it seemed too much trouble to try to revive it. But I can report what happened to the gravestones when their reason for being was lost to them. No longer useful, they had to pretend to be important anyhow. This led to curious and rather jazzy developments.

First they were called tombstones. A tomb is something more than a grave, and for a while the delusion persisted that if you bought a tombstone it was something more than a gravestone. But if you call a spade not a spade but a steam shovel it is not true, and people finally notice that you are a liar. This was what happened in the tombstone business, and, when it did, the name became one of humorous contempt.

One good name having worn out, another, still more pretentious, was chosen to fill its place. Tombstones became monuments. Now of course a gravestone is a monument, but the general term implies a large and public piece of architecture. I his was very advantageous for a while; in fact, in the glow of its false grandeur, ‘ monuments have been sold for a good many years, now, that you could carry home with you in a wheelbarrow.

But that term too has become passé. Its sins have caught up with it; a new name, again one syllable longer and several degrees more impressive, is taking its place. Monuments now are memorials. Here too the new term really is not inaccurate. Gravestones are (or would be, if they had epitaphs on them) true memorials. But since a memorial can be a hospital, a planetarium, or a fund held in trust to finance students working in the foreign universities, to apply the name to a nubbin of marble with no information on it is more pretentious than ever.

The name will wear out like the others, and a new one (of five syllables this time) will be shanghaied out of Webster to take its place. I wonder what it will be.


Meanwhile people go on buying gravestones, or whatever they happen to be called at the time, and then they go on not putting epitaphs on them, and Young Mortality goes on growling about it. But while I growl and lay out tedious names and dates, I sometimes think about the lost art of epitaph writing, and wonder if its rules could not be reconstructed from old examples, or worked out anew.

Dr. Johnson, who was a bigwig, thought it an honor in his day to be asked to write an epitaph for a friend. Wise, busy, and great men have not considered it foolish to spend real thought on their own — Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, Keats, to name three. Even Shakespeare’s, which at first glance does not seem to be very autobiographical, takes on spice when it is examined by the Baconians: they read a cipher in it, which tells how the supposed bard was poisoned by the real one, to keep him from blabbing that it was Lord Bacon who had written those vulgar stage plays. But the Baconians are always hard to take seriously.

For intellectuality in epitaph writing give me not ciphers, but the marvelous algebraic brevity of Fulke Greville’s


— in which x, the unknown, Greville, is expressed in terms of the three great knowns, a, b, and c. Brevity, pathos, wit, poetic beauty, serenity of judgment — these are the qualities we note in the epitaphs written by Greville, Keats, Franklin, Stevenson, and Dr. Johnson.

But that these qualities are easy to note does not mean that they are easy to imitate. Serenity of judgment, or truthfulness, is the most elusive of all. With that goal in mind, the less famous epitaph writers must often have sunk back in their chairs and sucked long and sometimes vainly at the handles of their pens. Oh, for an angel to guide those pens, — or would a devil be better? — perfect in knowledge, implacable in its expression, and not, if you please, without a funny bone.

If such angels could be persuaded nowadays to write our epitaphs for us, instead of entering the information secretly in the Book of Life, Young Mortality’s profession would be much gayer. And this happiness would lie in my sense of usefulness, not merely to the cause of History, but to that of Public Health as well. I should see the libraries drain their coughing biography readers into the open air; the cemetery sunshine would bring roses to the pale cheeks of the novel addicts, while they browsed among my inscriptions.

But our angel, thanks to his perfect truth, would probably not long keep out of court, and his superiority to the laws of good taste would be hard on innocent heirs. Spoon River had best be written of imaginary people, and read in book form, after all. The unforgettable lines


no doubt drove his grandchildren (if he had any) to move to a distant county in the attempt to escape that doggerel. Or this epitaph, from Epsom Downs,


must have made Miss Melissa, one of the orphans, more disconsolate than ever, when she put her hair up and was being courted by the barrister’s clerk, an elegant young man. For though such lapses from taste and kindliness split Posterity’s sides, and I, who have had my sides split by them, would not willingly give them up, yet to some of the immediate survivors they must have been too funny to bear.

However, angels are not at present for hire, and ‘good taste’ once ossified epitaphs into the set phraseology that killed them. If pure truth is unattainable, and good taste can be deadly, perhaps we had best hitch our wagon to plain honesty, that intermediate star. Thus, if a man was a plumber, and devoted his leisure to the game of pinochle, the thing to do is to say so, and not leave a blank because he was not a college president who devoted his leisure to archæology. It is humanity, not grandeur, after all, that Young Mortality craves to find in his inscriptions. And this, I’ll bet a two-by-one-by-six grass marker, is what the future will be gladdest and most grateful to find there, if somebody will only write it.