Constable: Why cemeteries get the last word on what's on your tombstone

  • This cause was so important to his late mother that Jack Ruhl wants to write it in stone above her grave at Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton. The diocese says the words "priest rapist" are too "explicit" for a cemetery.

    This cause was so important to his late mother that Jack Ruhl wants to write it in stone above her grave at Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton. The diocese says the words "priest rapist" are too "explicit" for a cemetery. Courtesy of Jack Ruhl

  • Fighting for "priest rapist victims" was an important part of life for Marguerite Ridgeway of Lisle, shown here wearing a medal featuring the "Virgin Mary." Ridgeway's son, Jack Ruhl, wants to include that phrase on her gravestone at Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton. The diocese says the words "priest rapist" are too "explicit" for a cemetery.

    Fighting for "priest rapist victims" was an important part of life for Marguerite Ridgeway of Lisle, shown here wearing a medal featuring the "Virgin Mary." Ridgeway's son, Jack Ruhl, wants to include that phrase on her gravestone at Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton. The diocese says the words "priest rapist" are too "explicit" for a cemetery. Courtesy of Jack Ruhl

  • At Arlington National Cemetery, gravestones include only the facts. But most cemeteries today have to make difficult decisions about what goes on those tombstones and whether the final messages are in good taste or offensive.

    At Arlington National Cemetery, gravestones include only the facts. But most cemeteries today have to make difficult decisions about what goes on those tombstones and whether the final messages are in good taste or offensive. Associated Press

  • Honoring his late mother, Marguerite Ridgeway, by including her support for "priest rapist victims" on her gravestone is important to Jack and Diane Ruhl. But Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton won't allow that phrase.

    Honoring his late mother, Marguerite Ridgeway, by including her support for "priest rapist victims" on her gravestone is important to Jack and Diane Ruhl. But Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton won't allow that phrase. Courtesy of Jack Ruhl

 
 
Updated 10/26/2017 6:09 AM

Those Halloween novelty tombstones for Izzy Dead, Bea Fraid or Barry DaLive might make you smile, groan or even take offense. It's all a matter of taste.

For the living, tombstones can be deadly serious.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Having this marker on my mother's grave was important to her, and it is very important to me," Jack Ruhl says in a telephone interview Wednesday about the ongoing debate he is having about the tombstone for the grave of his mother, Marguerite N. Ridgeway of Lisle, in Assumption Cemetery in Wheaton.

His request to have her gravestone note that she "supported priest rapist victims" was rejected by a Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet attorney, who called that wording "explicit" and suggested a more dignified description along the lines of "supported victims of clergy sex abuse."

"I don't know how you dignify rapist," says Ruhl, a professor at Western Michigan University. "I am nowhere near ready to give up."

Archdiocese officials say they're willing to work to find an acceptable resolution.

"We're trying to find common ground where everyone can be at peace," said Edward Flavin, director of communications for the Joliet archdiocese.

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Cemeteries, including this one, have people sign contracts granting the cemetery the last word on last words, but that debate continues.

"People think that when they buy the grave, they are buying that property. They're not," says Bob Biggins, a past president and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, which boasts 20,000 members worldwide. "There's always going to be those circumstances where somebody is trying to make a point. To put it on a headstone, that's not the appropriate place to do it. There is a line about what is in poor taste."

From NFL sidelines to Twitter, Americans are letting their opinions be known and arguing about the right way to do that. Obituaries and gravestones are the latest forum for that.

"It used to be, 'Mary was born, worked at Sears & Roebuck and then she died,'" Biggins says, noting that funeral directors and newspapers want more out of death notices these days. "We encourage them to put in anecdotes."

Curse words and accusations generally are not allowed, but nothing is simple. A New Jersey newspaper recently ran dueling obituaries of a man who was survived "by his loving wife" in the first version and by "his longtime girlfriend" in the second obit.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Writing an obituary for the newspaper is different from setting up a permanent monument next to other people buried in a cemetery. Some cemeteries are as strict as condo boards. If your grandfather is buried under a white marble tombstone with Dublin Celtic lettering, you need to use the same on your grave marker. Religious cemeteries tend to emphasize the religion more than the person's life. At Mount Carmel Cemetery in West suburban Hillside, the tombstone of Chicago's most infamous gangster reads simply, "Alphonse Capone 1899 -- 1947 My Jesus Mercy."

A local request to have a gang symbol included on a tombstone was rejected. But another cemetery bent its rules to let a grieving couple leave toys on a baby's grave.

"It's a new day and we're up to the challenge, but do it in good taste," Biggins says. "It is a challenge."

Some celebrities have used their tombstones as part of their acts. At Los Angeles' Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, comedian Rodney Dangerfield's gravestone warns, "There goes the neighborhood." Television host Merv Griffin's stone says, "I will not be right back after this message." Mel Blanc, voice of countless cartoon characters, used his Porky Pig signoff: "That's all, folks."

More and more people are including political statements or other causes in their dying wishes. "One of the things we've seen happen is this horrible opioid problem," Biggins says, noting that people want to let the public know that a loved one died of a drug overdose to spread awareness and let others in that situation know they are not alone.

Next week's 2017 NFDA International Convention & Expo in Boston includes seminars "on how we deal with these things," Biggins says.

"In this crazy world we live in, there's lots of stuff going on," Biggins says. "As caregivers, we're trained and poised to meet those challenges."

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