In this little slab of stone so much of life, love and death is brought together.
What does it stir in you? Perhaps, romantically, it makes you think of the rise and fall of once great empires. Maybe you feel the chill air of a subterranean columbarium. Perhaps it reminds you that what was once solid and firm can be brought to dust and sadness. For me, ultimately, it speaks of love.
It is a sliver of an epitaph on which are carved a few words, only one of which is complete: Antonia. She raised the plaque in memory of her ‘dearest and incomparable husband.’ Just four fragmentary words freighted with love, yet as we read them, the centuries contract. We seize upon this commonality, we too have loved.
Our lives and culture differ greatly from the ancient Romans’, yet in our intimate human relationships we must surely desire the same secret tendernesses of affection; share the same confusions of sexual intimacy; crave the same emotional warmth; delight in the same intensity of fond endearments.
Philip Larkin sensed this too. He ends his poem, An Arundel Tomb (about another monument) with these words: ‘What will survive of us is love.’
Our lives are short, we should fill them with love. We should tell our friends and family, our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, partners, boyfriends and girlfriends that we love them. Yet too often we fail to turn to that other person and utter those words; repeatedly we stop short from holding out our hands to those in distress, to lift up our neighbours or support our fellow man.
‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’
These moving words, from the Order for the Burial of the Dead, are likely familiar to some of you, perhaps heard intoned in recent weeks. Our lives are short, don’t wait until it is too late, say the words today, say them now.
As Nat King Cole sang, ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’
Epitaph for Antonia’s husband
2nd-3rd century AD