I was headed out to JFK a few weeks back to pick up a friend who was flying up from Atlanta. Completely out of character, I left my house early for the 90-minute trip to the airport and, on the way, received a voice alert that his flight was delayed and his landing would be two hours later than expected.  

Breezing over the Whitestone Bridge, I weighed whether to head out to Rockaway and walk the boardwalk for an hour or so (it was a relatively warm and sunny morning for December) or stop at Old Montefiore Cemetery, which was also close by, to have lunch with my parents, whom I hadn’t visited in more than a year. I was feeling hungry, so I got off the Cross Island Parkway in Laurelton, picked up a sandwich and coffee at a bodega in the neighborhood and headed for their small patch of green to visit and reminisce. 

My parents are buried in an attractive area, just off one of the main footpaths. I parked the car as close as possible to the site, took out one of my folding lounge chairs—I always keep one in the trunk, along with a tiny picnic table—and set up my sandwich and coffee. As I leaned back, starting to relax, I noticed a couple of gravediggers nearby, also enjoying their lunch. I nodded; they smiled.

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I must have hung out there for about a half-hour, drifting in and out of memories. Finished with lunch, I began gazing around at the variety of headstones and memorials nearby and started to read some of the engravings. One, in particular, caught my eye. Underneath the person’s name and date of birth/death was written the words: Don’t be so smug!  

That’s a kicker, I thought, humorous and to the point. No longer cognizant of time, I began to wander about, reading one inscription after another. Bypassing the commonplace—names, dates and the conventional piece of prose or reference from the Bible—I sought out gravestone inscriptions that caught my eye and gave me some insight into the drama of a life.   

Honorable or arrogant, the words on those slabs fascinated me. A sign between the living and the dead? A rejoinder of the person’s humanness? Maybe a glimpse into someone’s immortality?

I won’t bore you with the myriad inscriptions I found. Most were painfully familiar: Beloved Mother; Precious Baby; Gone But Never Forgotten; Always in Our Hearts, and so forth. However, for a relative few, there was etched at the bottom of that cold stone a matchless word or unique phrase that vividly distinguished them. 

Funny or sad, ironic or irate, the ones I came to focus on most fostered a sense of intrigue and carried a missive too distinctive for me to ignore. This list would be more extensive if space were not a priority:

“Here lies an atheist, all dressed up and nowhere to go.” 
“Have fun with global warming.”
“He was one who followed dreams,
stars and ships.”
“No tears. No candles. Just be good to each other.”
“Real love stories never have happy endings.”
“So small, so sweet, so soon.”
“I will commit suicide or die 
trying.”
“It was only a matter of time.”
“I was hoping for a pyramid.”
“I survived. My sisters and brother didn’t. I’ve come here to give my mind a rest.” 
“The song is ended but the melody lingers on.”

Before I knew it, I’d spent at least another hour or so traversing this hallowed ground, lost in thought. The unique summing up of a person’s life in just the fewest of words, I reasoned, seems to give shape and meaning—and even a measure of immortality—to the faceless throngs buried beneath. The stones and their legends will, no doubt, stand the ravages of time a great deal longer than the last caller who might, someday, ever care to visit.  

I was jarred alert by the buzzing of my phone, texting me that not only had the plane landed, but my pal had already retrieved his luggage and was standing where we’d planned to meet, anxious to know my whereabouts.

I wasn’t quite sure how I would explain why I was so late.