Charles De Gaulle? Georges Clemenceau? Elbert Hubbard? R. C. O’Brien? Vladmir Bjornberg? Seth Wiggins? Anonymous?
The graveyards are full of indispensable men.
The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.
This is often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, and it would be a good fit with a mordant Gallic world view. Ralph Keyes’s “The Quote Verifier” offers a baker’s dozen of alternative attributions as far-flung as Winston Churchill and Rick Santorum. Keyes concluded with “Verdict: An old saying” [QVGF].
Quote Investigator: The earliest version of this sentiment located by QI does not use the word indispensable, but the saying still communicates the same idea.
Elbert Hubbard was a prominent writer and publisher who also founded the Roycroft artisan community in New York. He collected adages and also formulated many of his own. In 1907 his publication “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” printed the following phrase as a free standing saying without attribution [TPEH]:
The graveyards are full of people the world could not do without.
By definition an “indispensable” person is a person one could not do without. This adage has been attributed to Hubbard for many decades, and he still sometimes receives credit today.
In 1909 a newspaper in Oklahoma printed the phrase as part of a larger passage that carefully delineated its implications [OKCF]:
Young man, as you perambulate down the pathway of life toward an unavoidable bald head bordered with gray hairs it would be well to bear in mind that the cemeteries are full of men this world could not get along without, and note the fact that things move along after each funeral procession at about the same gait they went before. It makes no difference how important you may be, don’t get the idea under your hat that this world can’t get along without you —Abilene Reporter.
By 1948 the word “indispensable” was being incorporated into some adages of this type. Here is an example from the journal Postgraduate Medicine in June 1948 [PGCF]:
The cemeteries are full of people who thought themselves indispensable.
By 1962 the French statesman Georges Clemenceau was credited with a version of the saying, and later the words were attributed to the French general Charles de Gaulle. Top-researcher Barry Popik has done great work tracing this maxim, and this article uses some of his pioneering results.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
The first two cites in 1907 and 1909 were described above. The next citation in this presentation appeared in 1919. A magazine called “The Recruiters’ Bulletin” published by the United States Marine Corps printed a version of the adage and credited the words to an Icelandic poet [RBVB]:
Several years ago, in these very columns, we quoted the words of the famous Icelandic poet, Vladmir Bjornberg, who wrote “The graveyards are filled with the men the world could not get on without.” We are going away and we’ll never be missed.
In 1924 the maxim was published in a humor column in a California newspaper where it was credited to a knowing grandfather. This version emphasized the subjective viewpoint of the deceased while they were still alive [SDSW]:
Grandpap Seth Wiggins of Palomar Mountain calls my attention to the fact that the cemeteries are full of people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.
In 1928 an instance appeared that vividly illustrated the connection between the word “indispensables” and the adage. The word was affixed as the title of the short saying in a Canadian newspaper [LHIN]:
The text of the adage: “The cemeteries are full of people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them” could easily be modified via substitution to include the title word “indispensable”. Indeed, this modification eventually did occur.
In 1929 a version of the saying appeared in the widely distributed syndicated column of Walter Winchell who called it nifty and credited it to another person [WWRO]:
Take it from R. C. O’Brien, the cemeteries are filled with people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.
In 1932 a version of the maxim appeared free-standing in a Texas newspaper with no attribution [TXCF]:
The cemeteries are filled with people who thought the world could not get along without them.
In 1938 the saying continued to be popular and appeared free-standing in a Nebraska newspaper without attribution [NBCF]:
The cemeteries are full of people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.
In 1940 a letter writer named R. C. O’Brien claimed coinage of the saying and mentioned the fact that Walter Winchell had given him credit in the past [KFRO]:
Years ago Walter Winchell used to quote a line of mine: “The cemeteries are filled with people who thought the world couldn’t get along without them.” It was true then and it is true now.
In June 1948 the word “indispensable” was directly incorporated into a version of the adage. Here is a slightly longer excerpt from the journal Postgraduate Medicine [PGCF]:
The cemeteries are full of people who thought themselves indispensable. They vanished into oblivion, and their places were taken by other and better men.
Also in 1948 a book in French was translated and published in English with the title “A Man of Means” This work contained a version of the expression with the word “indispensable” [JNEH]:
The cemeteries are full of indispensable people.
In 1956 Walter Winchell used a variant of the maxim to comment critically about a famous comedy duo [WWML]:
… Rowan & Martin … delighted the Tough Copa Crowd with their hilarious nonsense. More refreshing, more talented and more everything than Martin & Lewis, who will find out that the cemeteries are crowded with comedians who think the public can’t get along without them.
In 1962 a version of the saying was ascribed to the prominent French statesman Georges Clemenceau in Time magazine [TMGC]:
Opposition posters quoted the words of the late Premier Georges Clemenceau: “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.”
In 1968 the adage was again attributed to Clemenceau in a newspaper column [VAGC]:
But the personality cult is now dead, the Communist editor assured me, and as proof he quoted Clemenceau: “The cemeteries are full of men who were once thought to be indispensable”
By 1981 the saying had been attached to the famous French general and political figure Charles de Gaulle as recorded in a syndicated newspaper column [LDCG]:
The graveyards are full of indispensable men, Charles de Gaulle once remarked.
In conclusion, QI believes that the core idea of this maxim appeared by 1907 in the work of Elbert Hubbard. Many versions of the expression evolved over the decades. Eventually the word “indispensable” was substituted into the phrase which made it more concise and elegant.
Based on the 1948 translated book, “A Man of Means”, it is possible that a French version of the expression also existed in an early time frame. But the current evidence attaching the phrase to Georges Clemenceau or Charles de Gaulle is weak.
(This question and exploration were inspired by a query from “Youngtrummy” in the comments section of this blog. Thanks for your inquiry.)
[QVGF] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Pages 84-85 and 294-295, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.(Verified on paper)
[TPEH] 1907 May, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Page 190, Volume 24, Number 6, Published by Society of the Philistines, The Roycrofters, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[OKCF] 1909 February 4, The Evening News, Press Comment, Page 2, Column 3, [NArch Page 7], Ada, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
[PGCF] 1948 June, Postgraduate Medicine, Leaves from a Doctor’s Diary by Maurice Chideckel, Quote Page 488, Column 3, Volume 3, Number 6, McGraw-Hill, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified on paper)
[RBVB] 1919 May, The Recruiters’ Bulletin, Section: Editorial, Another Swan Song, Page 12, Volume 5, Number 4, United States Marine Corps, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[SDSW] 1924 November 04, San Diego Union, Roundabouts, Edited by A. Roundabouter, Sad But True, Page 4, Column 7, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
[LHIN] 1928 August 13, Lethbridge Herald, Indispensables, Page 6, Column 4, [Reprinted from Ottawa Citizen], Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (NewspaperArchive)
[WWRO] 1929 May 11, Evening Independent, Your Broadway and Mine by Walter Winchell, Page 4, Column 3, Massillon, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
[TXCF] 1932 February 05, Grand Prairie Texan, Page 2, Column 5, Grand Prairie, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
[NBCF] 1938 April 18, Morning World Herald [Omaha World Herald], Page 8, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska (Genealogybank)
[KFRO] 1940 October 31, Kingston Daily Freeman, Independent Voter Against 3rd term, Page 21, Column 7, Kingston, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
[JNEH] 1948, A Man of Means by Jacques Nels, Translated by Elaine P. Halperin, Page 111, Ziff-Davis Pub. Co., Chicago, Illinois. (QI has not yet verified this data on paper; Bibliographic data from HathiTrust; The page number is based on a match in HathiTrust)
[WWML] 1956 November 5, Springfield Union, Walter Winchell On Broadway, GNB Page 4, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
[TMGC] 1962 November 2, Time, France: Close Victory, Time, Inc., New York. (Time magazine online archive; Accessed time.com on 2011 November 19)
[VAGC] 1968 May 18, The Victoria Advocate, French Communists Organize for An All-Out Assault Against De Gaulle by Tom A. Cullen, Page 4, Column 4, Victoria, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
[LDGC] 1981 April 18, Ludington Daily News, The Indispensable Man – Reagan by Patrick Buchanan, Page 4, Column 1, Ludington, Michigan. (Google News Archive)