Etc. in the Graveyard

From my office window, I have a glorious view of the Grove Street Cemetery, where Yale students often go to read. By far, my favorite spot in this vast city of monuments is near the end of Cedar Avenue, past the graves of Eli Whitney and Noah Webster.

There, just beyond the intersection with Myrtle Path, you can find the extraordinary headstones of two Yale chemists, John (Jack) Gamble Kirkwood and Lars Onsager.

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Kirkwood, who died at the tender age of 52, had an incredibly distinguished academic career — rising to the rank of Sterling Professor and chair of the chemistry department. His headstone is remarkable not only for its height of nearly six feet but for its content. It reads very much like a curriculum vitae. We don’t see a list of his publications, but we have a listing of his degrees, positions, and scientific honors.

In sharp contrast, the neighboring monument has the spare description of Lars Onsager, who was a contemporary of Kirkwood in the chemistry department, but who died 17 years later. If you look closely at the Onsager monument you will see after “Nobel Laureate” an asterisk, with an associated legend with the

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fateful four characters:

A lot has been written on the Internet (for example, here and here) about this “etc.” It’s often characterized as a perpetual barb thrown out from one chemist to his rival. But with the assistance of a very helpful reference librarian, I was lucky enough to speak to Erling Onsager, the mastermind behind the footnote.

I asked him if he knew anything about the story behind the “etc.” The first words of his mouth were “It was my idea.” The asterisk wasn’t added until 1991, when his mother died — 32 years after Kirkwood’s death and 15 years after the original unadorned “Nobel Laureate” inscription.

Erling explained that his family and the Kirkwoods were in fact good friends. “His widow, who was a very nice Greek lady, decided to put up all of the information,” he said. “We thought it was a bit much.”

When Lars Onsager died, his wife wanted to follow the Kirkwoods’ lead and list many of Lars’s accomplishments. Erling explained:

My mother wanted to include some of my dad’s stuff. But to even add a list of things like his medals, we would have needed a skyscraper. We tried to convince her to include the asterisk at the time of my father’s death. But she didn’t think it was a nice thing to do.

But the idea of the asterisk stayed in Erling’s mind, and years later, when the children were adding their mother’s death date to the monument, they also added the asterisk and the “etc.” footnote. “When my mother died, my brothers and sister and I, we all agreed it was the right thing to do,” said Erling.

Erling wanted to set the record straight on his family’s motive for including the notation:

The idea was very tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t done maliciously. It was triggered by the neighboring headstone, but it was not aimed at it.

He also emphasized that neither his father nor his mother knew that it would be added. “It was an attempt to satisfy my mother’s wish. She thought my father was underappreciated.”

And he’s confident that his father would approve. “My father would have enjoyed the joke.”

Kirkwood might have appreciated it too. Maybe not as a joke, but that etcetera has brought extended attention to the very real accomplishments of Kirkwood himself. Without the footnote, it is likely that Kirkwood’s marble resume would have faded into oblivion.

I’m a PC

In a funny way, these headstones remind me of the PC/Mac ads:

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The Kirkwood monument is Microsoft-like in being verbose and way nerdy, while the Onsager monument is stylish and slightly ironic (bordering on the snarky), a bit like the Apple ads. And like the Apple ads, I find myself sympathizing with the PC’s and Kirkwoods of the world.

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I don’t have a desire to build a mausoleum, like this one that Illinois Senator Roland Burris erected in the Oak Lawn Cemetery.

It comes complete with of a listing of his accomplishments (including his being the “first African-American in Illinois to become … an S.I.U. exchange student to University of Hamburg, Germany”).

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But I will own up to having a desire to have my webpage maintained after I shake off this mortal coil. For me, the conceit is to make it easier for people to find what I have written.

It’s more about remembering my ideas than my honors. (I’m heartened that Thomas Jefferson chose to mention two of his publications rather than his presidency.) There are several services on the Internet that are willing to sell you eternal online memorials. For example, Legacy Archives, for a few hundred dollars, will maintain a “perpetual web page.” Let me quickly add that part of me is repulsed by my own desire for perpetual self-promotion. That part of me is attracted to John Keats‘s preferred epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

Here’s a mini-bleg for the Freakonomics faithful: are there any other instances of a headstone’s text being “triggered by” (or even making reference to) a nearby monument? Are there any marble resumes with more detail than Professor Kirkwood’s?

If you find yourself in New Haven and want to pay your respects to these two fine chemists, you can find the headstones near number 18 on this map, near the end of Cedar Avenue.


mmm

Roland Burris' mausoleum looks all the worse because it is right next to Jesse Owens' much more subdued grave.

charles

I clash with Ian's ideas at times but loved this post. Artful and interesting, and somehow, about life. Watching an economist watch the world is good sport.

Peter

It's rather odd that Roland Burris has such an ornate masoleum, considering that he's not, you know, dead.

Jake

Huh - a small point in your (good) column - I thought I was the only one starting to feel sorry for the "PC." I've never used a Mac (they've always been too expensive), and the ads, while undeniably effective and funny, always carried a hint of elitism, disdain and condescension.

"Oh. You use a PC. Still. Wowww. Okkk, I'm gonna go over here now and hang out with my other friends...have fun with your PC."

jonathan

Ah, The Dead Shall Be Raised.

My favorites remain the little touches in stone, etc. found throughout Sterling.

dan

not quite an example of headstone triggering, but tom thumb (charles stratton) and p.t. barnum are both buried in the mountain grove cemetery in bridgeport, ct. thumb's grave is notable in that the headstone is probably more than 10 feet tall even though thumb was less than 3 and a half feet tall (there is a life size statue at the top of his headstone)
barnum:
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?GRid=56&page=gr
thumb:
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?GRid=1032&page=gr

Toby

Well any company that offers a downgrade on its operating system...That kinda says it all, doesn't it?

zbicyclist

Similar to Keats: "Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." -- Ash Wednesday liturgy

Brit

Is hubris catching? Was Sen. Burris infected by the man who appointed him...?

Avi Rappoport

I think the Etc. is great!

The funny thing about the Mac/PC ads is that everyone feels like an underdog. In theory at least, America loves an underdog.

The Mac people feel defensive because it's been such a minority platform, and really did nearly go under, at least twice.

The PC people because they feel like the Mac people are looking down on them (which is only partly true). Plus: John Hodgman is fabulous.

I vote we call it a tie and stop dissing other platforms.

Avi

Phil H

I don't know about lengthy epitaphs, but the best one I've ever seen is in the Städtischer Friedhof III cemetery in Berlin. It reads simply "Au revoir", in handsome script. It carries no name or other details. Another nearby grave is marked only with the engraved autograph of the deceased, which is a nice personal touch.

Marlene Dietrich's grave several places to the right of these. Her famous epitaph "Hier steh ich an den Marken meiner Tage" seems a tad wordy in comparison.

Bob

My tombstone shall have the following:

My Name
Date of Birth-Date of Death
"Just Google It"

David

What Yale students go to the cemetary to read?

Xian

I have stated multiple times, it's up to whomever cares after I die, to do what they want, donate me to science, cremate me, bury me in the backyard, dump me in ditch on a desolate road, whatever. Just don't waste money on my remains.

I think the more humorous part between Mac/PC is Mac goes after Microsoft, which doesn't build computers, just crappy OS, Hardware-wise PC out does Mac everyday of the week, and if they compare Unix/Linux to Mac(oh wait Mac is based off of them.....) Mac is for those who want to seem important and are willing to pay for it. if Mac wants to really win, have their OS work on a PC, and see how stable they'll be then.

fibby

Xian, depending which country you live in, "whomever cares" may not be able to donate your body to science without your prior written permission. It may pay to discuss this with them first, in case it is something they want to do :-P

science minded

I had an uncle whose favorate expression was "you, I like." He used this expression quite often and it's on his' headstone. I really liked him too. He taught me that a complement can be invaluable. Sorta reminds me of what the ancient Chinese warrior did to gain a following, recalled ancestral spirits advice.
Goldstein, 1991.

adamooo

For a triggered headstone - I don't recall the location offhand, but my uncle is very fond of pair of headstones he once saw. The first had two names, e.g. "John Jones" and "Jane, wife of John" (she had post-deceased him). Having died even later, their neighbor's stone reads "Judy, who SHOULD have been wife of John Jones" (emphasis mine).

jake wyman

Is it too much to ask that when using a photograph in your blog, you credit the photographer?

Robert Mazo

I was student of both jack Kirkwood and Lars Onsager; they were my (joint) Ph. D. supervisors. They were both great men with very different personalities. After 55 years, i am still indebted to them both. Of course, the blog is not really about them, but about what happened after they died. Thanks for telling the story. It brought the "old days" back!