As we look around the world of literature and consider how it has performed in terms of commerce, we continue to be disappointed. We have to date improved the work of poets, memoirists, and novelists, yet so much remains to be done. We keep seeing whole fields of endeavor where it seems our literary brothers and sisters have not stopped even for one second to ask what should be the first question in any act of composition, How can I make some scratch from this?
Take the epitaph as an example. The beauty of the epitaph is that it sums up the life and the work at once and ties them together. Because of its unique authority—being carved in stone rather than printed on paper is a physical enactment of this authority—the epitaph is more likely to be remembered than any other line a writer composes. In Keats’ “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” which he wrote shortly before his demise, we have all the tragedy of his early death cutting short the heroic scope of his ambition. Virginia Woolf’s epitaph—“Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding o Death. The waves broke on the shore.”—is taken from the final lines of her novel The Waves. What a great recognition of the masterly completeness of her literary achievement. Also, what a saddening and even harrowing evocation of her death by drowning.
Epitaphs are uniquely poignant for this crossing from literature to life. And that is exactly why they provide the perfect moment for a little deft product placement.* Think of the glory of bequeathing to posterity a recommendation for, say, a good hair care product. What better way to stanch the tears of heirs as they visit your grave than to remind them of the sponsorship income they enjoy because of your labors?
Not only do we think there is a place for commerce in epitaphs, we think it is essential for the future of the literary enterprise that we exploit this potential revenue stream. We can’t afford to leave money on the table, let alone the altar, the pyre, or the casket.
“Here lies one whose name was writ in Dasani.”
“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
So cry aloud, you broken souls,
Keep up your teary racket.
Wrap him in your pining groans
and a sharp Brioni jacket.”
“Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence
and a dose of FOCUSfactor.”
“Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus, PF Chang’s,
or any number of quality Chinese restaurants can be planted.”
Alexander the Great
“A tomb now suffices him for whom even a Ferrari F12berlinetta was not enough.”
“Refrain from tears, father, and you, beloved mother, stop crying. I do not feel the sting of death, for in life I enjoyed the Teva Omnium leather trail sandals you bought for me.”
“He lies here in the dust but beholds Him
whose name is Rising on the Billboard Hot 100.”
“Nothing’s So Sacred As Honor
Nothing’s So Loyal As Love
Nothing’s So Gentle on a Saddle-Sore Backside as Charmin.”
“Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding o Death! The waves broke on the shore. I always enjoyed a Corona when at the beach.”
“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, father of the University of Virginia, and eager subscriber to the excellent Virginia Quarterly Review, a national journal of literature and discussion.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. We leave this terrestrial harbor, trusting our MaxSea marine navigation software to guide us.”
“Goddamn you all: I told you so. See it tomorrow in Talking Points Memo.”
“Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight. Prune more carefully next time with Felco® 12 Compact Revolving Handle pruners.”
“Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality. Be sure to take Alive! Once Daily Women’s 50+ Multivitamin/Multimineral.”
“The Stone the Builders Rejected. It Should Have Toughened Up with The Rejection Generator.”
George Gordon, Lord Byron
“He died at Missolonghi, in Western Greece, on the 19th April, 1824, Engaged in the glorious attempt to restore that country to her ancient freedom and renown. His sister, the Honourable Augusta Maria Leigh, placed this Lenovo IdeaTab tablet to his memory.”
*Research by Donald J. Sutman has found that at moments of strong emotion, people are particularly susceptible to marketing messages—if those messages are couched in congenial terms. In one experiment, he showed that marketing offers and billboard advertisements at a cemetery were 450%-900% more effective when directed at people walking into the cemetery as opposed to those just walking by.
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