From The Side of the Road… on the stone these words were written

The following is a rerun column from last year. Since last week’s installment referred to an as-yet unwritten column about the bluegrass afterlife, I thought next week would be a good time to actually write it. I’m hoping this “encore presentation” about bluegrass epitaphs might serve as a good setup for next week’s subject:

Perhaps it was the approach of Halloween, or perhaps the post-IBMA World of Bluegrass mental fatigue, but my mind has suddenly turned to the macabre. 

More specifically I’ve begun thinking about the writing on headstones. Epitaphs are often fascinating, sometimes horrifying, and occasionally just dull. But have you given any thought to what you would like said on your own gravestone?

This topic comes up in bluegrass songs now and then: In There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone, the singer requests that those words (the title) be written on his or her headstone. “There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” is a pretty negative—or perhaps just overly honest—message to have on your own headstone, but that was what the request was, and it seems like it should be honored.

In the Pee Wee King classic, Thy Burdens Are Greater Than Mine, recorded by Hank Williams, the Stanley Brothers, and others, the final verse says:

“On a stone these words were written
Thy soul is God’s thy memory mine
your soul is God’s . . .”

That’s simple and touching, I think. But what about your own? Difficult as it is to talk about (“What are you thinking of having on your headstone?” makes a lousy conversation opener at parties), it would be a good idea to leave behind some instructions for whoever may be in charge of these arrangements for you.

Leaving it to friends, family members, or co-workers can be taking a big chance. A resentful brother may opt for something like, “He was spoiled by mom and dad but we’ll miss him.” A somewhat unhappy spouse may choose this: “Though inattentive and unfaithful, many considered him fun to hang out with in bars.”

Or worse, if you’re in a bluegrass band, allowing your bandmates to decide what goes on your headstone is especially risky. You could end up with these winners:

“He played pretty well in A”

“She liked to rehearse a lot”

If you’re a bluegrass musician or artist, you may have a vague idea of what you’d like to have “chiseled in stone” about you, but may not feel able to express it in the right way. I’m going to do my best to offer some suggestions. I’m afraid “Father of Bluegrass” and “King of Bluegrass” are already taken, but here are a few others. These are tailored to the kind of role you play in the business:

Banjo Player:

His life had too many stickers for a single banjo case

Forward was how she rolled

His backup was as important as his lead

Thumb-index-middle-thumb-index-middle . . . The End

Mandolin player:

She was more in tune than most

The slow man with the fast tremolo

Fiddle Player:

What she lacked in taste she more than made up for in intonation

The angels are requesting Sally Good’n right now

A lead singer/band leader:

We always told him how important he was
and he seemed to believe us

We’ll miss her voice, her presence, her autograph

He knew every word to Barbara Allen and The Little Glass of Wine

We were all terribly impressed

Musician, general:

It was all about the groupies and the backstage snacks

It was all going so well until her love asked her to take a walk down to the Ohio River

Audio engineer:

Though some say it could have used more digital editing, his was a well-mixed life