Saturday 6 April 2019

Plan Your Epitaph Day (because it is your funeral, after all!)

Today is Plan Your Epitaph Day, for reasons, we must admit, that remain largely obscure but, some suggest that its purpose is to offer control freaks the opportunity to plan out what their gravestone is going to say! (Cute Calendar).

However, as Days of the Year observes, "your Epitaph is going to be that one thing that is remembered forever about you, even by those who never knew you. ... This day ... is the perfect day to set aside some time to figure out what you're going to have to say about yourself before you're gone."

John Toland, the Irish-born rationalist philosopher and freethinker was one who wrote his own epitaph, just a few days before his death on 11 March 1722. A Latin version (perhaps the original) has been digitised on the website of British History Online, who also note that "it was never inscribed on his tomb":
H. S. E. Johannes Tolandus, qui in Hiberniâ prope Deriam natus, in Scotiâ et Hiberniâ studuit, quod Oxonii quoque fecit adolescens; atque Germaniâ plus femel petitâ, virilem circa Londinumt ransegit ætatem: omnium literarum excultor, ac linguarum plus decem sciens: veritatis propugnator, libertatis assertor; nullius autem sectator aut cliens. Nec minis nec mails est inflexus, quin quam elegit viam perageret; utili honestum anteserens. Spiritus cum æthereo patre a quo prodiit olim, conjungitur; corpus item naturæ cedens in materno gremio reponitur. Ipse vero æternum est resurrecturus, at idem futurus Tolandus nunquam. Natus Nov. 30. Cætera ex scriptis pete.
Stephen H. Daniel, in his book John Toland: His Methods, Manners, and Mind, provides an English-language version which reads:
Here Lyeth John Toland.
Who born near Derry in Ireland
Studyed young in Scotland and Holland
Which, growing riper, he did also in Oxford
And, having more than once seen Germany
Spent his Age of Manhood in, and about London.
He was an assertor of Liberty
A lover of all sorts of Learning
A speaker of Truth
But no mans follower, or dependant,
Nor could frowns, or fortune bend him
To decline from the ways he had chosen
His spirit is join'd with its aithereal father
From whom it originally proceeded,
His body yielding likewise to nature
Is laid again in the Lap of its Mother
But he's frequently to rise himself again,
Yet never to be the same Toland more.
Born ye 30 of Novemb. 1670
Dy'd the 11th of March 1722
If you would know more of him
Search his Writings
Daniel notes that "The British Museum manuscript of the epitaph is not in Toland's handwriting" and suggest that it may have been transcribed by Pierre des Maizeaux, a French Huguenot exile who was with Toland in his last days and, after his death, arranged for a collection of Toland's writings to be published in two volumes.

Whoever transcribed it, that person would have filled in the date of death but also, as Daniel further notes, incorrectly identified the year that Toland was born as 1674. To avoid confusion, Daniel changes it back to 1670 and this is how it appears above, as well as in his book.
Plan your own Epitaph day is a day for reflection on our own mortality, and thinking forward to what kind of legacy we want to leave behind for those who come after us. While we will live on in the minds of our family and friends, the story of who we are will only be told to strangers in our final message to the world, left engraved in the marble tablet of our headstone.Days of the Year


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Further Reading

  • An Account of the Courts of Prussia and Hanover: Sent to a Minister of State in Holland by John Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2013)
  • Letters to Serena by John Toland (Four Courts Press, 2013)
  • Nazerenus by John Toland (Voltaire Foundation, 1999)
  • Physic without Physicians byJohn Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2020)
  • Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland by John Toland (The Manuscript Publisher, 2013)