Ethics Quiz: The Uncivil Gravestone

Having begun today with a convoluted ethics quiz, I feel I owe you a straightforward one. The topic: gravestone etiquette!

The family of “Owens”—didn’t he have a first name?—coded his favorite retort “Fuck off” onto his gravestone. “It was a term he used a lot,” his daughter told a local radio station. “He was very direct: if he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t talk to you.” Wow, what a great guy! I don’t know how long it took for someone outside of the family to discover the clever <cough!> arrangement of initial letters that spelled out his cheery slogan, but the cemetery management says that it was always was against the placement of the vulgar marker. “There is no place for swearing in the place where people’s loved ones lie,” a spokesperson said. “Imagine lying next to this tombstone forever.”

Yeah, I’m lying dead in a coffin forever, but what really bothers me is “fuck off” being engraved on the headstone next door. What is this, stupid statement week? While we’re tallying up stupid, why are the letters crucial to the story blurred on that photo? If the story is about the use of “fuck,” why censor the same word in the photo?

Your SECOND Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is the “Fuck off” gravestone unethical?

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Uncivil Gravestone

  1. Unethical. Those beneath those stones neither know nor care. But the inscription is deeply disrespectful of the living who visit these graves. Not to this guy’s family, one presumes; plainly, they consider it a real knee slapper.

    On a related note, I find the entire premise of decorating graves at all to be bizarre. I wouldn’t call it unethical, presuming that people engage in such actions because it makes them feel better about their loss. But what a waste. I shall be perfectly content to have my ashes tossed in the ocean.

    • You and me both, Arthur. In fact, I have requested the coast of Maine as opposed to the hahbah I grew up on. I have, however, threatened my mother with a disco ball at her gravesite.

  2. Personally I think headstone markers should only have the full name of the deceased, rank-honorable decorations-notable service-branch if military, the date of birth and the date of death. Anything beyond that is unneeded fluff and shouldn’t be allowed in any cemetery. You really can’t fully sum up the entirety of a life in a short sentence like “Loving Husband, Father, and Grandfather” etc so why try.

    At one point in time I wanted to have the note on my headstone that read “A Character Is A Diamond That Scratches Every Stone” but I’ve come to understand just how narcissistic that view of myself truly was; it’s still one of my favorite sayings. Now I choose to be cremated and I don’t want a headstone, just spread my ashes in a Smokey Mountains stream and turn my urn into a flower pot or melt it down for bullets, I just don’t care. I don’t need people to visit my grave in some beautifully manicured cemetery with perfectly aligned rows of headstones, I know my memory won’t be forgotten with those that have truly known me, I permanently scratched their stone and that’s good enough for me.

  3. This is one reason I’ve always been a fan of the headstones at the national military cemeteries. Simple, unadorned, and dignified.

  4. And then there’s “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Of course, then there’s also always, “I never drink water; fish fuck in it.”

  5. At minimum, it’s classless. You’re definitely a boor if you think this is something to mark your memory.

    Unethical? What’s the ethical principle at issue here? That a cemetery should have a minimum amount of decorum? That any space where the public gathers needs to cater to all potential sensibilities (like the old norms against cussing in public)?

    I hate this kind of thing personally, but I don’t know. Mark me as undecided but disgusted nonetheless.

  6. Pertaining to this particular stone, I am in agreement with Arthur in Maine. Concerning information on gravestones generally, I do know that genealogists of the future will likely appreciate those ancestors who included more information on their gravestones rather than less. Having spent a lot of time over the past twenty years tramping around old cemeteries in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee in search of ancestral graves, I can attest to the frequent helpfulness of lengthy inscriptions in differentiating between this “John Doe” and that “John Doe.” In my family, successive generations seem to repeat the same six to eight first names with astounding regularity. Even “plain” military headstones, with their unit names and numbers, can be a big help in genealogical research.
    I know a lot of folks place no particular value in learning their family’s history but, in our case, it has deepened our understanding of regional and national history as well.

  7. I’ve heard it said that a problem in society now is too many live their lives as if they are the star in a movie about their lives and everyone else are actors. All that matters is “me and what I want.” It sounds like Mr Owens exhibited this trait in spades and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Who cares about others feelings? Who cares about the families of those buried next to this?

    A civilized society depends on people having some level of care for those around them. So many problems in society today have some root in the breakdown of that care.

  8. I see nothing wrong with quotes and humor on gravestones. One thing that is depressing about cemeteries is that so little is there distinguishing the occupants, unless they are high achievers and like Thomas Jefferson, have some accomplishments listed under their names. When I see an epitaph like “I told you I was sick!” I smile, and that’s a small tribute to the dust under the stone.

    • I see nothing wrong either, but that’s largely inoffensive to others. The stone in question, I argue, is almost certainly offensive to others. In other words, the Second Niggardly Principle comes into play.

      I used to live in a tiny town (population <250) in Maine that for the sake of this discussion I'll call "Smithville." The town cemetery was located on Route 2, a reasonably major east-west road in western Maine, where the mountain ranges run north-south, making east-west routes challenging, so the river valleys do more than run water. They also run log trucks.

      It was your basic small-town Maine cemetery – somewhat well-kept (meaning it was cut for hay two or three times a year) but it held graves of people going back six generations and the 7th and 8th were planning to end up there. So people would come, and not everyone was tidy.

      One day, there was a new sign by the entrance that read "[Smithville] Cemetery. Carry In, Carry Out. Leave No Trash Here."

      The sign was made by a seventh-generation resident who owned a sign shop. I'm not certain who wrote the copy, but it positively cracked me up. It still does, in fact, but it apparently offended others, so the sign lasted about six weeks before being replaced by one that said "Please don't litter," which is obviously a better choice.

      People, it seems, get persnickety when they get offended by visiting the turf over Grandma.

      Another reason I plan to be dumped in the bay.

  9. I think the inscription is ethical as long as the inscription is what Owens wanted and not someone else’s idea of what it should say. It tells me more about him, that is he is someone that I wouldn’t have wanted to know and if I had known him then I wouldn’t miss him.

    • My father insisted that he wanted a grave with a metal plate that would trigger a recorded message from him when a visitor stepped on it. It would say: Hello there! Thanks for dropping by. I’m doing just fine. I recommend the neighborhood highly, in case you’re considering moving here!” Of course, once we knew Arlington would be his final destination, that plan had to be abandoned.

  10. I think that Jack and I will suffer the same fate. We’ll be cremated, and our ashes put into an hour glass so we can keep working.

  11. The headstone is not unethical. Crass, but not unethical. What might be unethical is the cemetery’s statement. If they were always against the tombstone, and had the power to deny its presence at the grave site, why didn’t they? If they were always against the tombstone but had no power to deny its presence, why say anything about it now?

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