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Character Is The Monument

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In the township of Tredyffrin, Pennsylvania, not far from the railway station, is a small cemetery filled with the remains of many unnamed Revolutionary War heroes. There are a few other gravestones of various sizes in various states of collapse and decay, the oldest of which dates back to 1777. One is still visible, though often dusted with light amounts of snow. It is for Margaretta Workizer, who died in 1805. The inscription reads,

“Verses on tombstones
are but idly spent
the living character
is the monument”

It is said that this was a rebuke of some of the other stones which feature lofty poems and biblical verses that one suspects might not have matched the lives of the people buried underneath them. In any case, the message feels like it might as well have come from Marcus Aurelius or Seneca. These were two men who wrote repeatedly—to remind themselves most of all—that memorials and memories were worthless and the only thing that mattered was what one did in life. Marcus would say that good character should be like a smelly animal—something that everyone in the room felt and noticed the second it walked in. But Heraclitus put it best: Character is fate.

Character is legacy too. An unmarked grave of some who sacrificed for something bigger than themselves is a far more noble monument than a brilliant marble obelisk purchased by a selfish asshole for themselves. And it’s worth saying again, as we have said here many times, memento mori. A tombstone verse can be carved anytime, by anyone, long after we’re gone. But living character is available to us only now—in the moment.

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