In a Word . . .

. . . ashes

Last week I wrote about American author and wit Dorothy Parker and how she suggested her epitaph might be "Excuse my dust". After she died in 1967, that took on a significance she could never have anticipated.

It involved the US civil rights lawyer Paul O'Dwyer. Born the youngest of 11 in Bohola, Co Mayo in 1907, he emigrated to New York in 1925. His brother William was New York's 100th mayor, from 1946 to 1950.

Paul O'Dwyer "inherited" Dorothy Parker's ashes. She instructed she be cremated and left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr. She had never met him and he had never heard of her.

He was assassinated 10 months after her death. Possibly in anticipation, she stipulated that should anything happen him, her estate should go to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Which it did.

Following cremation, her ashes lay unclaimed until 1973 when the crematorium sent them to her lawyer Oscar Bernstein’s office. He had retired and the ashes remained with his colleague Paul O’Dwyer until 1988.

Then 81 himself, he organised a party for her fans at the Algonquin Hotel and sought advice on what to do with her ashes. It was agreed they should be interred at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, at what became known as the Dorothy Parker Memorial Gardens.

A plaque there read “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, ‘Excuse my dust’. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind . . .”

That was in 1968. In 2020 the NAACP moved to Washington. Relatives of Dorothy Parker emerged and it was agreed her dust would be buried in the family plot at Woodlawn in the Bronx.

It happened in August 2020, 53 years after her death. It was a delay she would have relished. Always late, she once said her premature birth was “the last time I was early for anything”.

Due to the pandemic, only 12 attended her reburial, all wearing masks and socially distanced. The woman who said “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” would no doubt have come up with an edgy quip to mark that too.

Ashes, from Old English æsce, for "powdery remains of fire".

inaword@irishtimes.com

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