Continuing with the topic I started last week, gravestones in the 17th and 18th centuries carried a message not only with epitaphs, but also with symbolism; a finger pointing up, a weeping willow, a death's head with wings or a skeleton. The early stones were slender tablets of slate, limestone or marble, but by the early 20th century the stones became blocks of granite. The 19th century brought the most variety in tombstones; mausoleums, fancy tombs of the wealthy, family plots with a high monument and sometimes even fencing for middle class families and simple, sometimes hand carved, stones for poorer people.
Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland
Not only did the stones evolve and change, epitaphs changed, too. The latter part of the 19th century saw epitaphs almost completely religious in nature, while the first half carried over the traditions of earlier often quaint epitaphs and sometimes recorded something about the person or how they died like Sebra Day's stone. She died in 1823:
Her death was occasioned by
The sting of a yellow wasp up-
On the right arm within 20
Minutes from time of
Receiving the wound.
Many of the stonecutters were less than professional. They misspelled words, squeezed words together or cut with no regard for syllabication. In more than one cemetery I've found husbands and wives with their last names spelled differently. Of course, there were professional stone cutters, too, who left their trademarks with certain distinguishing designs or their names at the bottom for advertising purposes.
Epitaphs came from many sources. Some were Biblical, some words the dying wanted on their stone, and some from a friend or family member who wrote poetry. There were even books like The Epitaph Writer: Consisting of Upwards of Six Hundred Original Epitaphs, Moral, Admonitory, Humorous . . . Many were copied from other stones like this common epitaph on Julie Lynn's grave found in almost every old cemetery:
Behold wanderer as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me.
Another variation of the dire warning type of epitaph is on the stone of Lucinda, the daughter of Elisha and Thankfull Farnam, who died in 1820 at age 26.
O fellow youth, I'm call'd by death
To bid adieu to earthly fears;
You now may read my epitaph
But soon you may be somond here.
Even grimmer poetry that doesn't gloss over death is that in memory of Eumis Roose, wife of Elijah, who departed this life March 7, 1877:
When in the grave my bed I have
And thare my body rotten
This you may see least
I should be by all my friends
Sometimes there's humor whether it's intentional or not like on John G. Evans stone:
Our father lies beneath the sod;
His spirit's gone up to his God,
We never more shall hear his tread,
Nor see the wen upon his head.
Before the industrial revolution made books and other reading material more accessible to the average person, a common pastime was visiting cemeteries and reading the gravestones. Courting couples wandered through them and families often had picnics there. In the 1830s, cemeteries started moving away from churchyards to areas further out along with insane asylums, prisons and other undesirable elements. Also, there was a growing awareness of the part germs played in epidemics. Following is an epitaph for three sisters who probably died in an epidemic:
Strange as it is, but it is so,
Here are three sisters in a row
We were cut down all in our prime
The daughters of I and M Sirine
We gave paid the debt you plainly see
Left to be paid my friends by thee.
Later Isaac Sirine had his tombstone made with the following inscription except for the date:
Here at last the old man lies,
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he's gone and how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
Poor old guy. But when his stone was placed after his death, his brother added:
But his brother James and his wife Emmaline,
They were his friends all of the time.
Unfortunately old gravestones are not holding up against the effects of pollution. And those still legible are becoming more and more difficult to decipher. Although the granite stones show no sign of weathering, of what interest can these generic cemetery allotments be to any reader of epitaphs? When my son died of cancer at eighteen, I decided he'd have an epitaph so future visitors to the cemetery where he's buried, would know a little more about him. The three rings stand not only for the Trinity, but also because my son was a magician in addition to his other talents. The linking rings was one of his favorite tricks. I wish more people today would memorialize their loved ones this way.
Okay, your assignment: Write and post the epitaph you'd want on your tombstone.