HM - Apr. 2016 - Connors

The History File


A Message for Posterity: Thinking about Epitaphs  

Thomas G. Connors
University of Northern Iowa

Image 1: Sym-Rybold, Daphne-Fernwood Cemetery, Mill Valley, California

Epitaphs provide a kind of short eulogy, a few words as a coda to an individual’s life placed on his or her tomb.    An epitaph may be a statement of faith or principle, an admonition to the reader, or a comment on the life and character of the dead.   What is carved in stone is meant to be the final word.    A few compelling or interesting epitaphs, drawn from last few centuries with an eye toward history and culture, can offer a sense of what the genre has to offer teachers as primary sources.


Image 2: Catharine Smith’s Epitaph, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

How do you summarize a life in a few lines?    The best epitaphs are pithy and memorable.   Wordiness can come across as overkill.   Occasionally one can be found that makes use of every suitable space on the marker, front, back, and sides, as does Catharine Drinkhouse Smith’s monument in Philadelphia, shown here, offering the patient reader a short course in Spiritualism.     

A more suitable place to begin may be a few epitaphs from the eighteenth century, including two of the most well known, both in Latin.    The first is that of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt much of London after the Great Fire of 1666:  “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”   Not very difficult Latin, and often translated as: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”   The inscription is found inside St. Paul’s Cathedral, his masterpiece, and it was originally placed in the main body of the church, so that looking around revealed its magnificent interior.  The epitaph is famous, and deservedly so.  

Image 3: Jonathan Swift’s Epitaph, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Jonathan Swift’s epitaph is also in Latin:  “Hic depositum est Corpus / Jonathan Swift / Hujus Ecclesiae Cathedralis / Decani / Ubi saeva Indignatio / Ulterius / Cor Lacerare nequit, / Abi Viator / Et imitare, si poteris, / Strenuum pro virile / Liberatis Vindicatorem.”    A later Anglo-Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, provided a poetic (if not literal) translation:  “Swift has sailed into his rest; / Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his Breast. / Imitate him if you dare, / World-Besotted Traveler; he / Served human liberty.”    [Yeats’ translation of the epitaph, along with a more faithful one, can be found on] While today Swift is popularly remembered for the first book of Gulliver’s Travels, his satires, including his “Modest Proposal,” critiqued the deplorable condition of Ireland under British rule.   His epitaph honors him as a prophet advocating justice and challenges the reader to do the same.

Image 4: Lucy Fesenden Epitaph (1778), Old Burying Ground, Lexington, Massachusetts

Image 5: Palmer Epitaph, Haydarpasa Cemetery, Uskudar, Istanbul, Turkey

An old tradition in Christianity is including a “Memento mori,” or “reminder of mortality,” on a tomb, expressed in words or symbols.  The skulls, skeletons, and coffins found on Colonial headstones are examples of this.   In epitaphs, readers are admonished to reflect on the divine judgment they will face upon their upcoming arrival in the afterlife and live their remaining days accordingly.   This marker in Massachusetts may not be the smoothest example: “Youth’s foreward lips / Death soonest Nips.”     More compelling is this quotation from the burial service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (drawing on an older antiphon in Latin), here illustrated on a marker in the British military cemetery in Istanbul: “In the midst of life  / we are in death.”

Image 6: John Jack’s Epitaph, Old Hill Burying Ground, Concord, Massachusetts

In the old burying ground overlooking Concord’s green is the slate headstone of John Jack, “a native of Africa who died March 1773,” nine months before the Boston Tea Party.    The epitaph begins: “God wills us free; man wills us slaves.”  It is a long epitaph but worth reading in full (see image), notably: “Tho’ born in a land of slavery, / He was born free. / Tho’ he lived in a land of liberty, / He lived a slave.”  Eventually Jack was able to gain his freedom, which sadly proved short-lived: “Tho’ not long before / Death, the grand tyrant / Gave him his final emancipation, / And set him on a footing with kings.”

Image 7: Jefferson’s Epitaph, copy of the original plaque, University of Missouri, Columbia
Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholder and the man who help give expression to the idea of liberty for the new country, wrote an epitaph for his monument in the family cemetery at Monticello: “Here was buried / Thomas Jefferson / Author of the Declaration of American Independence / of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom / and Father of the University of Virginia.”   The wording has always been considered revealing, showing the accomplishments of which he was most proud and excluding the offices he held, from president on down.    When the obelisk was replaced, the original was sent to the University of Missouri.    This photograph shows a replica of the original plaque affixed to the original monument from Monticello.

Image 8: Preston Brooks’ Epitaph, Willowbrook Cemetery, Edgefield, South Carolina

The epitaphs of two figures from the Civil War era suggest the controversies of the day: Preston Brooks, who died a few years before the war, and Thaddeus Stevens, who died a few years afterward.    Brooks, a Representative from South Carolina, is best known for caning Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856.  He died after a short illness the following January and was buried back home in Edgefield.    One side of his monument reads: “Ever able, manly, just /and heroic; / illustrating true patriotism / by his devotion to his country; / the whole South unites / with his bereaved family / in deploring his untimely end.  ‘Earth has never pillowed / upon her bosom a truer son, / nor Heaven opened wide / her Gates, / to receive a manlier spirit.’”    It’s telling how the devotion to country quickly shifts to regional grief and solidarity.  Coming so soon after the incident for which Brooks received such notoriety at the time (and since), this description of his virtues, with special nods to manliness at the beginning and end, seems to express the same regional ideas about honor and manhood that lay behind his attack on Sumner.

Image 9: Thaddeus Stevens’ Epitaph, Shreiner’s Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

At the other end of that era’s Congressional spectrum, Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens took the opportunity to perform one last civic duty, a final expression of his commitment to racial equality.  When he died in 1868, he chose to be buried in Shreiner’s Cemetery in Lancaster and explained his reasoning on the monument there:  “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot /not from any natural preference for solitude / but finding other cemeteries limited as to race / by charter rules, / I have chosen this that I might illustrate / in my death / the principles which I advocated / through a long life: / Equality of Man before his Creator.”   

Image 10: Jones Epitaph, Fairview Cemetery, Cedar Falls, Iowa

Individuals like Stevens who chose their own epitaphs are sending a message to posterity about who they were and who the reader should become.   Often the call to action is quite direct.    In Iowa, a large monument proclaims: “Let us try to make the world better for having lived in it. / Justice demands the same rights for women as for men.”   Eva Jones, who is buried there with her husband and child, died in 1916, four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.   

Image 11: Susan’s Epitaph, Yountville Pioneer Cemetery, Yountville, California

Unfortunately, as with Eva Jones, the historical record may leave little information to fill out the background story behind a compelling epitaph.   This also seems to be the case with a tombstone in a pioneer cemetery in Napa Valley.   It reads: “Susan, / Our / Adopted and Redeemed / Apache, / From Arizona, / Aged 16 Years. / ‘I have found redemption / through the precious /merits of Christ.’”    One can wonder about the story behind those words, but without a date of death, last name, or other records, it will remain speculation.    Walking around a cemetery, intriguing epitaphs often raise such curiosity in the casual onlooker.   How did Susan come to be in northern California?  What caused her early death?   

Image 12: Cap Anson’s Epitaph, Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Image 13: Joe Morris’ Epitaph, Riverside National Cemetery, California

The grave markers of those who have left more substantial records behind offer a chance to assess the appropriateness of the epitaph.    In Chicago’s oldest cemetery, Hall of Fame baseball player and manager Adrian “Cap” Anson’s headstone has a satisfying comment beneath its crossed baseball bats: “He played the game.”   World War II Code Talker Joe Morris’ small marker in Riverside National Cemetery hits another home run: “My weapon / was my language.”    

Image 14: William Butler Yeats Epitaph, Drumcliff Churchyard, Sligo, Ireland

As might be expected, writers frequently rate very literate epitaphs.    William Butler Yeats, whose translation of Swift’s epitaph has already been quoted, gave instructions in verse, in “Under Ben Bulben,” the name of a mountain in Ireland:   “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid, / An ancestor was rector there / Long years ago; a church stands near, / By the road an ancient Cross. / No marble, no conventional phrase, / On limestone quarried near the spot / By his command these words are cut: / Cast a cold eye / On life, on death.  / Horseman, pass by!”   []

Yeats died in the south of France in 1939 and by the time he could be returned to Ireland, a world war had intervened.   Gossip and some odd evidence questions whether the right body was retrieved, and the tombstone finally erected was of slate rather than limestone.   But the headstone reads as demanded, and Drumcliff Churchyard attracts many pilgrims to view his grave.   What does Yeats’ chilly epitaph mean?  That’s been under discussion since the poem was published in 1933.  No doubt he would be pleased.

Image 15: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Epitaph, St. Mary’s Cemetery, Rockville, Maryland

How did a half-pagan poet like Yeats end up in an Anglican churchyard?   Surely his fame didn’t hurt, nor did his family connection.    In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s case, his notoriety kept him out of the Catholic cemetery in which he had hoped to be buried.   Three and a half decades later, the church relented and he and Zelda now lie together there, under a headstone inscribed with the celebrated final lines of his best known novel:  “So we beat on, boats against / the current, borne back / ceaselessly into the past.”

Image 16: Conrad Aiken’s Epitaph, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia

Southern writer Conrad Aiken was buried near his parents in Bonaventure Cemetery, his monument inscribed: “Cosmos Mariner / Destination Unknown.”    According to local lore, Aiken was taken with the name of a ship (Cosmos Mariner) that sailed by while he was sitting in the cemetery (overlooking the Wilmington River) and adapted it for his own grave marker, a bench where he hoped visitors could enjoy a drink.     

Image 17: Dorothy Parker’s Epitaph, NAACP Headquarters, Baltimore, Maryland

In 1925, the magazine Vanity Fair asked celebrities what epitaph they would want on their grave, and the results tended toward the tongue-in-cheek.   A backhanded compliment came from W.C. Fields, who admitted he would “rather be living in Philadelphia.”    That comment did not make it onto his niche in Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum (Glendale, California), and virtually none of the others published in the magazine made it from print to grave.  At least one did, however, as by the end of the twentieth century, comic epitaphs became more acceptable.    Dorothy Parker, who had sent “Excuse my dust” into the magazine, did get cremated after she died, but her ashes remained undisposed of for years until the NAACP (to which she left her estate) claimed them and buried them in a memorial garden at its headquarters.   The small plaque there includes the jest within a much longer and more serious epitaph.

Image 18: Benjamin Franklin’s Comic Epitaph, Christ Church Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Something similar happened with a comic epitaph penned by the 22-year-old Benjamin Franklin, playing on his work as a printer.   The stone ledger covering his grave only includes his name and year of death (along with his wife Deborah’s name).   The youthful epitaph eventually became so well known that a plaque containing it was added to the brick wall adjacent to the grave.   

Image 19:  Hahn Epitaph, Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey

Image 20:  Paladino Epitaph, Lakeview Cemetery, Jamestown, New York

An edgier epitaph that turns up more often than one might expect is: “I told you I was sick,” perhaps intended as a joke, or to induce guilt.   Others occasionally come across refer to favored pastimes (or traditional gender roles), like “Gone fishing” (for men) or “Gone shopping” (for women).   

During the Victorian Age, such levity would have been considered inappropriate (though surely examples can be found), but the twentieth century brought new attitudes toward death, a sharp contrast with what had come to be seen as the nineteenth century’s morbid obsession with it.    One result is the memorial park, where markers lie flat in vast lawns, disguising the landscape’s purpose by banning upright monuments and avoiding the word “cemetery.”     Another is the occasional attempt to get a smile or chuckle out of the visitor by adding a bit of wit to the grave marker.

Images 21-23: Epitaphs of Merv Griffin, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jack Lemmon, Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California

At Westwood Memorial Park, the most chic permanent address for Hollywood stars for half a century, something of a comic competition has been playing out among the exclusive lots in the Chapel Garden Estate.    Talk show host Merv Griffin’s headstone concedes that: “I will not be back after this message.”   Comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who made a career out of getting no respect, here brings everyone down: “There goes the neighborhood.”    But the subtlety of “Jack Lemmon in” will always be difficult to beat.

Image 24: Peter Sellers’ Epitaph, Golders Green Crematorium, London

Better to end on a more profound note, provided by the memorial plaque to another actor, Peter Sellers, on a wall near where his ashes were scattered in north London.   It reads: “Life is a state of mind,” the final words spoken in Being There (1979), Sellers’ last great film.       

What an epitaph adds to the grave is a touch of personality or some sense of what filled the years represented by the small dash between the dates of birth and death, the life being remembered here.   What in previous centuries tended towards expressions of faith—often biblical verses or grim reminders of the onlooker’s own mortality—has given way to more personal commentaries. Both painful expressions of grief and occasional attempts at humor can be found in this unexpected setting.

For students of history, epitaphs provide clues and insights into the lives commemorated and the broader culture of the time.    They may stir curiosity and stimulate research to provide greater context for the limited words that can fit on a headstone.   For teachers, epitaphs offer their students a chance to reflect on a life already passed, or the challenge of writing one themselves, of capturing a life lived in a few well-chosen words.

Images 25-26: Cesar Chavez Epitaph, Chavez National Monument, Keene, California