Do You Want Your Name On This List?

Newspaper ads for tombstonesIs Shakespeare immortal? No. I’ve been to his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But his name is written on a sign there, telling me it’s his grave, and I even made a point of going to the church to see it, which can lead us to the question of whether he is immortal in a metaphorical sense. Someone might say yes, but not because of that grave. He’s immortal because of the plays and poems. True, but what if his name was not on the the things he wrote?

With my students, we used to read the Mesopotamian literary epic Gilgamesh, in which King Gilgamesh is concerned with immortality, of the walking-around-alive sort. By the end of the story, he has been robbed of living immortality by a serpent. Gilgamesh then has to resign himself to trying to make the best of this life, but I would often have a student point out the fact that we were still talking about him 4,000 years later, because his story was written down. So he did gain a kind of immortality.

How powerful is the act of writing down names? This weekend I took a very pleasant and seriously needed break down in Washington, DC , and while I was there, my friend took me to see the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which I had been unaware of. It’s designed with some interesting symbolism of lions protecting their young, as law enforcement officers protect the rest of us. One feature of the memorial that set me to thinking was the fact that it contains the names of American law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty, beginning in 1791, with a current total of 19,000. The world being the nasty place that it is, new names are added every year.

So many names are on those curving stones, and since we were in Washington, it naturally reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial, which has the names of all Americans killed in the war, more than 58,000. These two memorials, with such enormous numbers of names, are particularly striking for having recorded so many individuals, but these are not the only monuments to record the names of the dead. Many towns have war memorials, where the names of local men and women who died in various wars are placed on the stones.

And of course, what is every gravestone? Imagine, however, a graveyard full of markers, hundreds or even thousands of them, with not a single word on any of those stones. Would such graveyards even exist?

Without language, and moreover without writing, they are only stones. It is the writing that gives these memorials their value. More specifically, the writing, whatever kind of writing it is, represents the name that has identified us in life, and recording our name is meant to provide a kind of immortality. I imagine that the reason the stones exist at all, in fact, is specifically to provide a space for the writing.

I’ve written before in this blog how we have almost a magical belief in the power of language (or more than almost magical). Why is it so important that our names be recorded when we die? Whatever the reason, it is so important that we often do it in stone, which has always seemed like the most permanent way.

Immortality of the name—as recorded in writing—was taken very seriously in ancient Egypt. During the Middle Kingdom there were several rulers, including Hatshepsut, the first female ruler, who were hated by later pharaohs. In consequence, the later rulers attempted to eradicate their despised predecessors by locating their names carved into stone, and having it chipped out.

Thousands of years later, we are still making an effort to see that our names will be recorded, so that we will live on after death. I don’t know why we care, but so many of us do. Isn’t desire for the name to live often cited as one of the reasons why writers write?

Carving of Hatshepsut

Go get a chisel

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