My grandparents were both born in Ukraine, immigrated to Canada as young adults and spent most of their lives in the tiny village of Gnadenthal Manitoba where they had a large grain farm. However they retired to this house in Winkler where they lived for many years and so Winkler is where they are buried. My Grandma, Margareta Sawatsky Peters was 99 years old when she died.
I was curious about the German epitaph on my grandmother’s side of the tombstone. It says Lebe wie beim sterben es dein wunsch wäre. I wondered what that meant. I put it into one of those Google translate things but what came out didn’t make any sense. My cousin Al said directly translated it means “Live as if, when you die, it was your wish.” That also didn’t seem right. So I contacted my aunties, my father’s sisters to see if they could shed any light on it.
The first thing I discovered was that the original epitaph had been altered to fit the stone and what was inscribed on Grandma’s grave marker was an abbreviated and not completely accurate version of something my grandmother often said. “Lebe, wie Du wen Du stirbst, wünschen wirst gelebt zu haben.” Translated it meant “Live your life in a way you will wish you had lived it, on your dying day.” I also found out the line was from a longer poem which my grandmother probably knew in its entirety.
Grandma loved poetry and even in her nineties could still recite long German poems she had memorized as a girl. The line of poetry on her grave is from a poem by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, a widely read German novelist, poet, fable and song writer who lived from 1715 to 1769. I wasn’t able to find the full poem online but one of my aunts says it talks about the fact possessions and prestige won’t bring you happiness at the end of your life, but a heart filled with love and a quiet conscience will.
Another aunt interpreted the epitaph to mean Live your daily life so that reflecting on your life on your deathbed, you will have no regrets. She said my grandmother used those words as her guide when she was confronted with disappointments, betrayals, anxieties and the physical exhaustion from the endless hours of hard work she did to care for and feed a family of eight plus two farm hands.
Grandma gave thanks frequently for the gift of humor God had given her as well as her love of music. When tensions were high in her home, she would quip a ‘one-liner’ that made everyone laugh. Often the joke was at her own expense! Also, rather than insisting that the household chores be done to perfection, she’d stop in the middle of working with her daughters, grab her guitar, and begin to sing the songs they all knew from memory and could sing together.
I look forward to hearing from other members of my family as to how their memories of Grandma might relate to her epitaph. In the mean time I think we would all do well to take Grandma’s epitaph to heart, thinking each day how we can make the kind of choices that will leave us with few regrets on our death-bed.