Every summer that I can remember as a kid, Mom insisted Pop drive to visit the gravesites of both the Christman’s, in Lehigh County, and the Kohler’s, in Berks County. Mom also took us on walks to the family cemetery of the Siegfried’s, from Siegfriedsdale, located near our farm. In the early days of rural America, families were allowed burial plots near their home.
Pop knew the honor bestowed upon those deceased. When Route 222 was built through one of his fields, the workmen found Indian graves and threw them on a pile. That didn’t sit well with Pop. He collected the bones and reburied them on his land. He placed a stone on top as a marker.
Cemeteries always fascinated me, especially the inscriptions or epitaphs on the tombstones. The dictionary describes epitaphs as “words written in memory of a person who has died, especially as tomb inscription.”
Similar to writings on greeting cards, books were published in England, such as The Epitaph Writer (1791), by John Bowden. In New York, The Silver Stole (1859), by Jeremiah Cummings, with 100 original epitaphs for infants graves, to help with ideas. By the 20th century the art of epitaphs is largely lost.
Yet, I did find numerous web sites to help write a meaningful epitaph for your loved one, or writing one ahead for yourself. Lance Hardie at www.hardiehouse.org/epitaph is involved in “Plan Your Epitaph Day,” an international observance featured in Chases’ calendar of Events on November 2nd. Hardies idea is “Besides, its YOUR stone---YOU leave a mark on it.”
I thought it would be interesting to do some research on epitaphs from books to visiting local cemeteries. Most inscriptions were plain with name, date of birth and death. Others were religious in character, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or for those killed in war, “He gave his life for his country,” and for children, “God’s garden needs flowers.”
The following are more gleanings of epitaphs, on the famous, odd, and even humorous, starting with the older ones in European countries:
The longest epitaph found (late 1st Century BC) is by an ancient Roman husband, about the virtues of his wife, Laudatio Turiae It has 180 lines.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), king of ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, “A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.”
The famous English poet, playwright, and actor, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) it is believed wrote his own, “Good friend of Jesus’ sake forebear, to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, and curst be he that moves my bones.”
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
In America, we have movie stars, singers, and other famous people:
Written by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) himself, “The body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the cover of an old book, Its contents torn out, And stripped of its Lettering and Gilding, lies here, food for worms. Bu the work shall not be wholly lost: For it will, as he believed, appear once more, In a new and more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.”
Written by W. H. Auden for the Unknown Soldier, Washington, D.C., “To save your world you asked this man to die: Would this man, could he see you now, ask why.”
The famous orator, inventor, military explorer, and first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles “Lucky” Lindberg (1902-1974), “If I take wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.”
W.C. Fields (1880-1946), actor, and writer, “Here lies W. C. Fields, on the whole I would rather be living in Philadelphia.”
The Irish comedian, Spike Millegan (1918-2002), “I told you I was ill.”
Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), singer, actor, and producer, “The best is yet to come.”
Merv Griffin (1925-2007), TV host, musician, singer, actor, “I will not be right back after this message.”
Here are some odd to humorous:Archie Arnold (1920-1982) has two parking meters on either side of his stone. He was a prankster all his life, the dials say “Expired.”
Sabine Lorenz (1803-1877), newspaper editor of Eastport Maine Sentenal, and U.S. Congressman, “Transplanted.”
Mel Blanc (1908-1989), the voice for many cartoon characters, such as Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, “That’s all Folks.”
Eugene “Gene” Shoemaker (1928-1997), geologist and founder of planetary science, is the only person ---so far---whose ashes are buried outside of this Earth. His ashes were carried to the moon by the Lunar Prospector space probe. The capsule is inscribed with, “And, when he shall die Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night, And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
Ray TSE (1966-1981), in New Jersey, has a full size granite replica of a Mercedes Benz 240 Diesel, license plate Ray TSE. An older brother had promised this 17 year old, as soon as he gets his license, he’d buy him a car. Alas, the young lad died, but his brother made sure he got his car---albeit granite, which took up 40 cemetery plots at a cost of $500,000.
A Paul Lind (1974-2005), of Portland,Oregon, , loved to play scrabble. When he died, his family and friends had the scrabble board portrayed on his stone.
On one of our trips out west, I read about a tourist attraction in Mount Hope Cemetery, Hiawatha, Kansas, and had to see it. It was a memorial of John Davis, who died in 1947, at 92, and his wife, Sarah, who died in 1930. Over a period of 7 years, John spend most of his wealth on this elaborate gravesite---a total of 11 figures of him and Sarah at various ages, one being him sitting in a chair and an empty chair beside him, with the words “VACANT CHAIR.” The whole group is to have cost more than a quarter of a million dollars, but he ended up in the county poorhouse.
And last is George Herman “Babe Ruth,” who died in 1948 age 53. He was buried in New Cathedral Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland, “May the Divine Spirit that Animated Babe Ruth to Win the Crucial Game of Life Inspire the Youth of America .” ---by Cardinal Spellman
A gentleman gunfighter, Clay Alllison (1841-1887), “He never killed a man that did not need killing.”
From the book, Sudden and Awful American Epitaphs by Thomas Mann and Janet Greene:
From Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas----Jack Wagner killed Ed Masterson Apr 9, 1878 killed by Bat Masterson Apr 11, 1878 ---“He argued with the wrong man’s brother.” Also form Boot Hill Museum---Mule Skinner Pete, “He made the mistake of not keeping his eye on the mule.”
“Here I lie and no wonder I’m dead. I fell from a tree, Down on my head.”
Another book, “Over Their Dead Bodies” by Mann and Greene:
Litchfield, Connecticut ---“Here lies the body of Mrs. Mary wife of Dea. John Buel Esq. She died Nov 4, 1768 AE tat: 90 Having had 13 children 101 grand-children 274 great-grand-children 49 great-great-great-grand-children 410 Total. 336 survived her”
From Stone, Vermont, “I was somebody. Who, is no business of yours.”
From Hatfield, Massachusetts, “Here lies as silent clay Miss Arabella Young Who on the 21st of May 1771 Began to hold her tongue.”
From the book, “ American Epitaphs” by Charles Wallis:
A monument in the shape of a drummer’s sample case indicates the grave of Thomas Campbell of Chicago, a traveling salesman, died in 1884, age 21, in Aspen Grove Cemetery, Burlington, Iowa, “My trip is Ended. Send my Samples Home.”
From New Gray Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee, “Anything for a change.”
Images of a heavily bearded man on a stone in Evergreen Cemetery, Leonminster, Massachusetts, “Joseph Palmer died Oct 30, 1873 AE 84 yrs 5 ms ‘persecuted for wearing the beard.’ “
Strange Creek, West Virginia, was named after William Strange, who was lost from his companions while surveying in 1775. His bones were found years later near a tree where his gun still sat. Strange had carved his epitaph before he died: “Strange is my name. I’m on strange ground. And Strange it is I can’t be found.”
Recently, my husband and I vacationed at the Finger Lakes region of New York. My husband had just finished reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. He was impressed by William Seward (1801-1872), who provided President Lincoln “great counsel and friendship as Secretary of State.” Since Seward’s home, a National Historic Landmark, was located nearby in Auburn, we went touring. On this visit, we were told Seward was buried in Fort Hill Cemetery nearby.
Since I hadn’t found any readable epitaphs from old cemeteries in our local cemeteries, I was anxious to check out Fort Hill for epitaphs. The cemetery is quite hilly with numerous mounds. Luckily, we saw some cemetery workers who were able to tell us where Seward’s grave was located. We found many family members in the same area, and even though Seward’s was known for orchestrating the U.S. purchase of Alaska, his stone simply stated “He was faithful.”
We did find many old stones with epitaphs but most were undecipherable. The following are a few we were able to read:
A Capt. John Holland, RNR (1877-1942) stated, “This corner of a foreign field is forever England.” In research I found he was a British officer who died when his “beloved England and the U.S. were fighting common enemies in WW II.”
Another stone stated, “In memory of W. Harry Ward (1893-1918), 1st Sgt. Co M 198th Inf. In the battle of The Hindenburg Line buried at Bony, France.”
Last we found a high obelisk stone, located on a huge Indian mound. It read, “Though lost in sight, In memory dear, who is there to mourn for Logan.” In my research, I found the stone was erected for Chief Logan, Tah-gah-jute christened Logan 1725-1780, a renowned Cayuga sachem, statesman, orator, and warrior. The monument was a gift from the people of Auburn as a “friend of the white man.”
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention our visit to Arlington Cemetery to see the first man buried there---Union Pvt. William Christman (no relative), a member of the 67th PA Infantry, and born in Lehigh County. He died on May 11, 1864, and was buried on May 13, 1864. Although he didn’t die in combat, he died from a case of measles. His stone simply states “CHRISTMAN.”
Not exactly a stone slab, but many years ago I read a book, but can’t recall the name, This is the best story I recall from the book: A woman, I’ll call Delores, was visiting a woman, I’ll call Mary. Delores noted the egg timer on the stove had turned gray inside and warned Mary, “I wouldn’t use that egg timer, the salt has turned gray. ” Mary told her, “No, it’s my late husband’s ashes. He never worked a day in his life, so I figure he might as well work now he’s dead.”