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Etc. in the Graveyard—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on September 25, 2009.

Etc. in the Graveyard
By Ian Ayres ’86

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.

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 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 Osager, 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:

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.

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”).

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.