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Having the last word – great epitaphs

As a child I was fascinated by epitaphs. Epitaphs are the words found on graves’ headstones. Some were sad, some were thoughtful and some were funny.

I remember in my seventh-grade English class we covered epitaphs, and I became intrigued by them. The epitaphs themselves gave insight into the life of the deceased or what people thought of them. Some gave information on their demise while others seemed to just want to get on with it. My mom had a book of epitaphs and had memorized several herself. We would recite them back and forth. I only remember one my mom’s favorite which went:

Here lies the body of Sarah Jones

Lying beneath these polished stones.

Her name was Smith instead of Jones.

But Smith won’t rhyme with polished stones.

And she won’t care if it’s Smith or Jones.

My favorite one was from 18th century New England went:

Remember thou as ye passeth by

As thou art, so once was I

As I am, ye shall be

Preparest now to follow me.

Someone wrote under this:

To follow you is not my intent

Unless I know which way you went.

Some are curt like, “I told you I was sick.” WC Fields, who had been born in and lived a very hard childhood in Philadelphia, was said to have thought of having this on his tombstone, “All things considered I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Epitaphs from the Old West were interesting. One said: “Here lies Byron Vickers. Died Oct 7th, 1887. Second fastest draw in New Austin.” There were several second-fastest epitaphs. “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a 44. No Les. No Moore.” A good play on his name. Some epitaphs tried to justify the actions of deceased: “Robert Clay Allison. 1840-1887. He never killed a man that did not need killing.”

Some criticized the deceased’s skills: “Here lies Butch, We planted him raw, He was quick on the trigger, But slow on the draw.” Some commented on temperament: “Here lies the body of William Jay, Who died maintaining his right of way; He was right, dead right, as he sped along, But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.” Accidents happen: “Here lies the body of our Anna, Done to death by a banana, It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low, But the skin of the thing that made her go.” It seems some people will be soon forgotten: “Tom Smith is dead and here he lies, Nobody laughs and nobody cries, Where his soul’s gone, or how it fares, Nobody knows and nobody cares.” And some are just the facts: “Stranger tread, This ground with gravity, Dentist Brown, Is filling his last cavity.”

Some grudges are taken to the end; “Here beneath this stone we lie, Back to back my wife and I, And when the angels trumpet shall trill, If she gets up then I’ll lie still.” You can imagine what the woman in this epitaph was like: ”This stone was raised by Sara’s Lord, Not Sara’s virtues to record, For they are known to all the town, This stone was raised to keep her down.” Imagine the dislike this woman generated and her epitaph has informed many generations of her bad behavior.

Epitaphs are a look into the past or reveal things about the deceased. A lot of time was spent composing the epitaph and carving the saying into the stone. Many modern epitaphs are composed by the person before death. They are fascinating.