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Epitaphs

      
Date Published: 
September, 1903
Original Author: 
George Hebard
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 17th Annual Convention




It seems to be somewhat inappropriate, if not actually out of place, for anyone to come into a convention of boss gravediggers and say anything that will add to the solemnity and the gloom of its melancholy proceedings.

 

The very nature of the gravedigger's occupation would seem to forbid him to indulge in anything like a cheerful thought or a pleasing reflec­tion. Yet this view may not be altogether accurate, for according to statistics a very large part of the human race believe that every man has lived many times on earth, and thus to him, one more surrender of his mortal remains to the bosom of mother earth is thought of merely as a necessary step toward the next and a higher life.

 

Thus the work of the gravedigger need not necessarily be associated with all that is gruesome and forbidding. We have him with us and we need him constantly and hence no apology is offered for his existence.

 

To supplement his labors comes the builder of the monument and the tomb, a tribute of love to the beloved departed.

 

It is a natural human desire to perpetuate the memory of the dead, and this desire has from remote historic times found expression in monu­mental inscriptions or epitaphs.

 

Among the oldest may be mentioned those of the ancient Egyptians, many of which, we are told, bear a remarkable resemblance to those of modern days, showing the identity of human nature in all ages of the world.

 

Epitaphs are usually or often supposed to suggest some idea of the virtues of the departed one; but Byron seems to think that it is some­times otherwise, when he says:

 

"The Sculptor's art exhausts the pomp of woe,

And storied urns record who rests below;

When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,

Not what he was, but what he should have been."

 

Notwithstanding the sarcasm of Byron, there are many inscriptions beautifully expressive of departed worth, as is shown by Wm. Martin John­son's lines to the memory of a young lady over a century ago:

 

"Here sleep in dust and await the Almighty's will,

Then rise unchanged and be an angel still."

 

 

Another beautiful one will be remembered:

 

"He needs no epitaph,

The memory of the good is ever fresh

Their works live after them."

 

And this one to a noble life. A sermon for all time:

 

"Tho’ dead he speaketh yet; holy living

Hath a tongue which none can silence, and death

A language eloquent when he who dies,

Dies as he lived, a witness for the truth."

 

The following one, representing a conversation with an echo, is full of deep suggestion:

 

"0, Sacred Essence, lighting me this hour, How may I rightly style thy great power?

            Echo-Power.

Power of but whence? Under the greenwood spraye

Or liv'st in Heaven? Saye.

Echo-In Heaven's aye.

In Heaven's aye! tell me, may I it obtayne

By alms, by fasting, prayer, by paine?

Echo-By paine.

Show me the paine, it shall be undergone,

I to my end will still go on.

Echo-Go on."

 

Some epitaphs give warnings and even threats. Perhaps. the best known of this class is that on Shakespeare's tomb:

 

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare

To digg the dust enclosed heare;

Bleste be ye man: yt spares thes bones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones."

 

Occasionally the monument suggests the profession or the occupation of the deceased. One is to the memory of a sailor buried in Scotland:

 

"His voyage now finished, he's unrigged,

And laid in dry dock urn.

Preparing for the grand fleet trip,

And Commodore's return."

 

 

 

In a London cemetery is an epitaph over the grave of a dentist:

 

"View this gravestone with all gravity,

X. is filling his last cavity."

 

Another in London is to the memory of Sir John Strange:

 

"Here lies an honest lawyer-that is-Strange."

 

This one is attributed to Milton:

 

"God works wonders now and then,

Here lies a lawyer, an honest man."

 

A tombstone in another old English churchyard tells that:

 

"Here lies John Shaw,

Attorney at law.

When he died, the devil cried,

Give us your paw-John Shaw,

Attorney-at-law.”

 

Over the remains of a bookseller, buried in Scotland, is this one:

 

"For all the books I've bound,

Here now, with valley clods,

In sheets I'm rotting underground,

Death makes a mighty odds."

 

In many old cemeteries are found inscriptions that explain the manner of death of the deceased. This one, according to the records, is not far away:

 

"From life to death-a sudden stroke

­His head was by" a saw gate broke,

The purple gore in streams did run,

­He left a widder and one son."

 

In English churchyards are numerous epitaphs of this kind. One relates that:

 

"Here lies entombed, old Roger Norton.

Whose sudden death was oddly brought on;

Trying one day his torn to mow off,

The razor slipped and cut his toe off.

The toe or rather what it grew to;

An inflammation quickly flew to;

The part affected took to mortifying,

And poor old Roger took to dying."

 

At Winchester, England, is a slab, which, as a photograph shows, contains this warning inscription:

 

"In Memory of

Thomas Thetcher,

A grenadier in the North Regiment of Haut's Militia, who

died of a violent fever contracted by drinking Small Beer

when hot the 12th of May

1764-Aged 26 years.

In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards

his Comrades, this stone is placed here at their expense, as a

small testimony of their regard and concern.

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier

Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer.

Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall,

And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all."

 

This memorial being decayed was restored by the officers of the Gar­rison, A. D. 1781.

 

"An honest Soldier never is forgot,

Whether he die by Musket or by Pot,"

 

Near Canandaigua may be seen this account of the painful and sudden death, during the maple sugar season of 1817, of Myron, aged 5 years:

 

"This grave my body doth enclose

To take its long and last repose;

My lot was sealt in Death;

Hot Boiling Sap did stop my breath."

 

This piece of domestic history comes from Essex, England:

 

"Here lies the man Richard

And Mary his wife,

Whose surname was Pritchard.

They lived without strife,

And the reason was plain-.

They abounded in riches;

They had no care nor pain,

And his wife wore the breeches."

 

Now and then, an epitaph expresses doubt as to where the may be found after shuffling off this earthly tenement of clay an example in England:

 

"Here lies the bones of Robert Lowe

Where he's gone to I don't know,

If to the realms of peace and love,

Farewell to happiness above,

If haply, to some lower level,

We can't congratulate the devil."

 

From County Louth, Ireland, comes one a little more cheerful:

 

"Beneath this stone here lieth one

That still his friends did please;

To heaven, I hope, he's surely gone,

To enjoy eternal ease.

He drank, he sang. whilst here on earth,

Lived happy as a lord;

And now he hath resigned his breath,

God rest him, Paddy Ward."

 

In Wiltshire, England, is one that is even more comforting:

 

"Here lies the. body of Nancy Gwin,

Who was so very pure within,

She burst her outward sheath of sin,

And hatched herself a cherubim."

 

On a tombstone in Wales is this piece of philosophy:

 

"Our life is but a Winter's day;

Some breakfast and away;

Others to dinner stay and are well fed;

The oldest man sups and goes to bed;

Large is the debt who lingers out the day,

Who goes the soonest has the least to pay."

 

Expense is not often referred to in an epitaph, but Iowa furnishes one:

 

"Beneath this stone our baby lies;

He neither cries nor hollers;

He lived just one and twenty days

And cost us forty dollars."

 

One characteristic, at least, of the departed one is suggested by the following:

 

"Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,

Lies Arabella Young;

Who on the 29th of May,

Began to hold her tongue."

 

Consolation is breathed in this one:

 

"Put away those little breeches,

Do not try to mend the hole,

Little Johnny will not want them,

He has climbed the golden pole."

 

And also in this intended to comfort the widower:

 

"Weep not for Eliza Jane

But to submit endeavor,

For spos'n she had not a'died so soon,

She could not a’ lived forever."

 

But it may be asked what and where is the best epitaph; best in many senses of the word? This is partially answered by a little verse in a recent magazine:

 

"When I am dead, friends, carve no words

On marble as an epitaph;

Nor raise for me a splendid tomb;

At such things time would laugh.

But hold me in your faithful thoughts

While brightly life and thought are lent:

Your tears shall be my" ample praise,

Your love my monument."

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Code: 
A1224