Which decided a little heat would feel good on a cold day.
In Defense of Cliches
When Virginia Baker gave her talk on writing at the Denver convention, there was nothing unexpected about her admonition: ”Avoid cliches.” The example she used, however, was different. Virginia had been helping a lady prepare for publication a genealogy of the woman’s family. It included an account of the death by drowning of a little girl. Then came the cliche: “The heart-broken parents..” Or perhaps it was “broken-hearted” or ”grief-stricken.” All are standard cliches for the occasion. Probably not “bereaved.” That one merely tips its hat to death and leaves out the sorrow it brings.
And yet, what else could the lady have written? Death is not a thing to be ﬂippant or witty about, nothing for which to try a new, a clever approach. It is the ancient, the universal experience of mankind. The emotions it stirs when it comes unexpectedly, particularly to the young, leave us groping for words. “I’m sorry.” ”You have my sympathy. ” We murmur our cliches and know that shared tears, a touch, a look, say far more. But you can’t really put those into writing. Perhaps the lady should simply have set down. “The child drowned.” Period. Let the reader ﬁll in the rest. From their own experiences, their own imaginations, readers can. And the writer would have been credited with avoiding a cliche.
The cliches connected with death, however, are not conﬁned to the compilers of genealogies or to callers at funeral homes. They creep into obituaries, the printed thank you notices, the memorial tributes (which are also cursed with a great deal of very bad verse). It is the tombstone designers who have tried the hardest to avoid them.
Not with complete success, and not that that matters. They can always stop with a name and a date. If there is more space (and money) a line of Scripture may be added, or something to the effect of Rest in Peace in English, Latin or the initials which are identical for both languages. It is when the carving goes beyond the minimum that it begins to grow interesting. Some of the sentiments, usually rhymed, have been repeated to the cliche point. Others apply speciﬁcally to the dust interred beneath and they can be either revealing, or funny or even heart-breaking.
Of course I have a favorite. It was repeated in Westminster Abbey often enough to be classiﬁed as a cliche, but I like it. It would appear at the end of much or little carving: “In the hope of a blessed resurrection.” Very simply, that is the period put at the end of a life. The quantity and the quality of that life are equally unimportant. What counts at last is what it looks forward to forever, when its little here and now is done.
Avoid cliches? Certainly. But in sorrow and death, when we literally don’t know what to say, perhaps we need them. The old words, worn thin with the use of the ages, can still speak from friend to friend.
Come not among the graves at eventide:
It is a fey time then.
The endless lines of close-carved births and deaths
Become the living men.
The living throngs of men who worked and loved;
And mingled with them there
The womenfolk who sang about their chores;
And running everywhere
The laughing, weeping children, gone too soon.
At noon the sun lies warm across the stones.
An epitaph deﬁnes
Man’s little span. Sometimes one quaintly rhymed
Brings laughter with its lines.
And drowsy peace drifts down among the trees.
But Oh, at twilight time the air is ﬁlled
With tears for those who die.
For few there are who live so long that none
Regrets their passing by.
The interrupted lives that failed of time
To bring their dreams to pass!
The broken loves compelled to lie so still
Beneath the mounded grass!
For every heart that heedless lays away
Its dead, a thousand cry
Their grief against the wall of death. I feel
Beneath the evening sky
Their burden press me down, and turning ﬂee.
Published by Louise Lincoln and A. Walrus
Columbus, Ohio 43209
Printed by Alf Babcock, the pressless printer’s friend.