September 28, 2009


The Freakonomics Blog points out some graveyard humor, describing the origin of this clever headstone juxtaposition.

They belong to chemists buried in the Yale's cemetery. The one on the left of a John Kirkwood, while the right is Lars Onsager, both of whom were brilliant statistical and fluid mechanics. At first glace this looks like the absolute apex of academic one-upsmanship, but as usual, there is a buzzkilling explanation that involves these two guys not hating each other. Kirkwood died pretty young and his widow basically decided to make his headstone a curriculum vitae for some reason. Most people who knew him thought it was a bit odd, but Onsager's wife wanted to do the same for him when he died, but her family talked her out of it. His son Erling wanted to put an asterisk on there, but she vetoed it as being mean-spirited.

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.

And all the people involved seem to agree that both of these gentlemen would have found it hilarious. So revenge downgraded to gentle comedy. It kind of reminds me of Jefferson's headstone, that mentions only that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Virginia Statute of religious freedom and that he founded the University of Virginia -- without bothering to point out that he was the President. Which, if you think about it, seems to say to all the other presidents "Oh, you were the president too? That's sort of cool I guess. I didn't think it was worth making a big deal out of..."