He was the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in American history (1961-1977) during which time he shepherded President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs through the Senate and oversaw the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and America’s social and cultural upheavals. For 12 years he served as the United States Ambassador to Japan, among the most important posts in America’s Foreign Service. As a teen he was a juvenile delinquent, but received advice from a teacher one day who told him to turn his life around and make something of himself. He did, magnificently so, becoming one of the most powerful and dignified people ever to serve in the United States Senate.
He once said: “When I’m gone, I want to be forgotten.” When he died at the age of 98 in 2001, he was laid to rest on a green slope in Arlington National Cemetery. This is how his headstone reads: “Michael Joseph Mansfield, PVT, US Marine Corps, March 16, 1903 – October 5, 2001.”
I heard about Senator Mike Mansfield’s headstone epitaph last week (his wife Maurene’s name is chiseled on the other side of the stone). I remember him well during the 1960s and 1970s, and in hearing about what was written on his stone this week I was impressed by his humility in that only his name, birth and death dates, and the lowest rank in which he served in the United States Marine Corp were written.
Thomas Jefferson, not nearly as humble, had the following written on his stone at Monticello, Virginia: “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.” Oddly, Jefferson omitted being the 3rd President of the United States.
Whenever I find myself in a cemetery, I’m intrigued to read what’s inscribed on grave stones, the years of a person’s life and how these people either wished to be remembered or were remembered by their loved ones. The story of Senator Mansfield inspired me into thinking what I might want written on my stone one day – hopefully, long in the future.
Like all of us, I have many identities: husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, friend, Jew, rabbi, Zionist, author, American, and man. There isn’t one word other than my name that says everything about me, though one would have to know me to know who I am. My father’s stone reads simply his name, “Beloved husband and father,” and his far-too-short lifespan – 1905-1959 – his 64th Yahrzeit is next week). Perhaps that ought to be enough for any one of us. Thoreau famously said: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” As I age, the more his adage makes sense to me.
What is customarily written, at the very least, on Jewish tombstones in the Diaspora is the English and Hebrew name of the deceased (including the first Hebrew names of one’s parents), and the dates of birth and death in English and the Hebrew calendar. At the top is written in Hebrew פה נקבר (פ”נ – here is interred) or the abbreviation ת”נ”צ”ב”ה (תְּהֵא נַפְשׁוֹ/נַפְשָׁהּ צְרוּרָה בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים – “May his/her soul be bound in the bundle of eternal life,” from I Samuel 25:29). Those same words eventually became the final blessing recited in a eulogy (Shabbat 152b).
In short, the traditional Jewish epitaph emphasizes humility, respect for one’s parents, and faith in the eternal character of the soul. Everything else is ancillary.
In a lighter vein, the words inscribed on the famous voice-over artist Mel Blanc’s stone at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery are “That’s all folks” recalling Porky Pig’s farewell following every Looney Toon cartoon. Later, Bugs Bunny said it. Blanc was the voice of both.
So – this is something about which Senator Mike Mansfield’s story inspired me to think this past week. What would I want written one day on my stone? What words sum up a life except one’s name, the names of one’s parents (and if one has children, their names too), and the span of one’s years? What’s the best way to affirm the values of dignity, integrity, generosity, appreciation, and humility that Judaism compels us to embody? Hopefully, a שם טוב – “a good name” – is enough.