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Jason Walsh: When it comes to his epitaph, Billy Lord just wants to have the final word


“Men, they build towers to their passing – to their flames everlasting.” – “Time Waits for No One,” the Rolling Stones

Like many of us, Billy Lord just wants to leave his mark upon the world.

Billy is 82 and has lived in Sonoma since moving here after his divorce over 17 years ago. He has no family nearby; one son lives out of state, but they’ve lost contact.

Billy’s in a bad way. He says he has stomach cancer and worries he doesn’t have much time left.

So last summer, he purchased his final resting place – Crypt 31 to be exact – out at Mountain Cemetery, in the mausoleum wall that faces the east side of the lot, where venerable folks like Mariano Vallejo settled into more than a century ago.

Vallejo certainly left his mark upon the world, or upon Sonoma at least – and he got a fitting monument to his legacy just last month, in the form of an eye-catching bronze statue on the Sonoma Plaza. Billy isn’t expecting anything so grand for his granite crypt – just a simple inscription, a digital headshot, the insignia of the U.S. Air Force in which he served for five years in the 1950s, and the playful quote, “The Lord be with you.”

Completing work on the crypt has been a challenge. The headshot isn’t positioned as Billy had hoped and the Air Force insignia is nowhere to be seen. The City of Sonoma, which owns the cemetery, completed the work order for the crypt, and communication has been problematic – and unfortunately changes aren’t easy with granite inscriptions. Some things in life literally are written in stone.

Billy guesses he’s been to City Hall to hash out the problem at least 15 times. He says he’s even lost his temper once with city staff, which is perhaps an understatement. Billy’s memory is also fading, no doubt leading to more confusion and frustration all around. But like any wingnut worth their salt, he’s a fighter.

Billy says his fervor over the crypt isn’t ego driven. “This isn’t about leaving any legacy,” Billy said. “I don’t imagine anyone I know will ever read it.”

To him it’s about getting the job done right – and as we get older, every job takes on greater and greater significance. Epitaphs probably more than most.

Tombs come in all shapes and sizes – from the roughly 4-square-feet of Sonoma Crypt 31 to the most famous sepulcher in history, the Taj Mahal. That spacious 17th century Indian mausoleum was built to house the remains of Shah Jahan’s wife, who died while giving birth to her 14th child. Legend has it that after the decade-long construction of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the 20,000 artisans and architects who’d worked on the project – to ensure nothing as magnificent would ever be built by those hands again. Seems even the most consummate of catacombs has its downside.

The inscription on Billy Lord’s crypt is a list of the cities he’s lived in throughout his eight decades – from his birthplace in Altus, Oklahoma to Edenton, North Carolina where he spent his youth to his West Coast days in San Rafael and Sonoma.

Philosophers throughout the ages have written about the significance of last words and final epitaphs – are they about who we are, or who we believe we are?

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had a more cynical take on the concept of ultima ratio regum, or the “last argument of kings.”

“What is there flattering, amusing, or edifying in their carving your name on a tombstone, then time rubbing off the inscription together with the gilding?” mocked Chekhov.

None of that matters to Billy. And perhaps it shouldn’t to the rest of us either.

At this point, Billy doesn’t expect any more corrections or additions to be made to his crypt, which is already firmly in place in Mausoleum 11.

“Although, they’ll have to add one thing eventually,” he laughs.

Like many of us, Billy Lord just wants to leave his mark upon the world.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.