Charles De Gaulle? Georges Clemenceau? Elbert Hubbard? R. C. O’Brien? Vladmir Bjornberg? Seth Wiggins? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I would love to have a specific citation for the following quotation. Here are two versions that I’ve seen many times:
1) The graveyards are full of indispensable men.
2) 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”.
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:
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. Boldface has been added to excerpts.:
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.
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:
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.
The ascription “Vladmir Bjornberg” may have been invented by the editor of “The Recruiters’ Bulletin”, Thomas G. Sterrett. See the comment presented after this article.
In July 1924 a member of the Irish Parliament named Mr. McGarry speaking during a question and answer period employed a version the expression with the word “indispensable” that was similar to modern instances though a specific cemetery was named:
They have acted in the belief, and they have carried on as if they believed that there was no alternative Government. They have forgotten that Glasnevin Cemetery is full of indispensable people.
Decades later in 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. Details for these citations are given further below.
Top-researcher Barry Popik has done great work tracing this maxim, and this article uses some of his pioneering results.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.