The Epitaph Question (2016)

Manfred Kets de Vries

"How would you like to be remembered?"

It’s said that Alfred Nobel made the decision to establish his famous prize after his brother died in France and a French newspaper, mistakenly believing it was him, published the epitaph: “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.”


Although we all know about the Nobel Prize, what many may not know is that Nobel made his fortune from the invention of dynamite. To Nobel, the epitaph was a harsh reminder of how he would go down in history. Shortly after this eye-opener, he changed his will, donating most of his fortune to the Nobel Foundation. His memory now lives on, not as a merchant of death, but as an advocate of peace and progress.


A tribute to life


An epitaph (meaning literally in ancient Greek “on the grave”) is a memorial statement, most commonly inscribed on a tombstone or read as part of a funeral oration, to pay tribute to a deceased person, or to remember a past event.


Walking through a graveyard recently, I was struck by the often rather generic nature of so many epitaphs. Some of the more typical ones were “rest in peace” “always in our thoughts, forever in our hearts” or “a long life well lived”. Truly memorable ones such as “Excuse my dust” (Dorothy Parker), “I told you I was ill” (Spike Milligan), or “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen” (George Bernard Shaw) are few and far between.


The epitaph question


Early in life, reflecting about our epitaph is not something that is top of our minds. But as we get older, thinking about the kind of obituary or epitaph we would like to leave becomes more prominent.


In my experience, the epitaph question is a very enlightening way to obtain a long-term perspective on an individual’s life. It pushes you to think about the kind of person you would like to be. By forcing yourself to focus on the big questions, you may obtain greater clarity about what really matters in your life.


Over the years, as part of career exploration in the various leadership development programmes that I run, I have asked executives what they would like to read on their tombstones. What would they like people to remember them by? And what may be missing from their life?


Not surprisingly, when thinking about their own epitaph, many executives struggled to find a response. But after some hesitation, some of the more recurring answers I received included the following:


  • I’d like to be remembered as a wonderful parent, a thoughtful spouse, a caring sibling or friend.
  • I’d like people to say that I made a positive difference in their lives – that I was a source of inspiration.
  • I’d like to be remembered for standing up for others.
  • I’d like to be remembered as someone that lived life by my own rules, that I followed my own path.
  • I’d like to be remembered as a person who was true to myself and stuck to my values.
  • I’d like to be remembered as someone who always made the extra effort – who tried my best.


What’s clear from these comments is that we’re not going to be remembered for material things such as money or possessions. Our enduring legacy is what we do for others. To quote Albert Einstein: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Executives will do well to keep this observation in mind.


A catalyst for radical change


To have a fitting epitaph, you need to be the best version of yourself. How you want to be remembered is how you ought to live your life. Reflecting now on the kind of epitaph you would like to leave (as was the case with Alfred Nobel) may propel you to make radical changes in your life.


Your time is limited, so don’t live a meaningless life. Live a life worth remembering.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017

INSEAD Knowledge, 2016

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