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No one likes to contemplate his own death, but knowing that it is inevitable, perhaps at one time or another, you may have given thought to writing your own epitaph. What would you say? The modern practice of using rather small, ground-level markers leaves room for only brief identification. This will deny future searchers the bits of history, advice, inspiration and wry humor found on the older, larger tombstones.

Years of genealogical research have turned up many interesting epitaphs. A bit of the drama of America is to be found in these early inscriptions. Going back to a time when the ability to read and write was somewhat limited, the composing of epitaphs was frequently left to the sexton or to the local stonecutter, sometimes with quite amazing results.Certainly the parents of Gertrude Walker, aged 4 years, Walker Cemetery, White Horn, Tenn., had no humorous intentions and did not intend their loving tribute to be carved thus:

She has gone to be an angle

The stone for Susannah Ensign, 1825, aged 54, also bears an important misspelling; however, in this case, the person who copied the inscription adds the note that there was not enough room for the final "e," changing the intended pious tribute to read:

Lord she is Thin

At times the epitaph collector may find a double meaning in the recorded sentiment, as on the stone

of Edward Oakes, aged 24, who died in 1886 and was buried in West Cemetery, Middlebury, Conn.:

Faithful husband thou art

At rest until we meet again

The same is true of the message found on a marker at LaPointe, Wis. Certainly the affectionate brother mentioned did not intend his words to have the meaning that is evident to today's casual reader:

To the Memory


Abraham Beaulieu

Born 15 September


Accidentally shot

4th April 1844

As a mark of affection

from his brother.

Very early epitaphs in our country would seem to indicate that the truth may be contrary to the accustomed belief that our Colonial ancestors were solemn, long-faced individuals who found it difficult to smile and were entirely lacking in a sense of humor. Note the following from a collection compiled by Charles L. Wallis in which he mentions this epitaph of 1751, Stockbridge, Mass., for a chief of the Housattonic Indians:

Here lies John Konkapot

God be as good to him as he would be

If he were God and You were John Konkapot

Evidence of the growth of America is found on the marker of John Patterson, who died in 1880 at age 90 and is reputed to have been the first white child born in Arkansas. The tombstone, located in Marrianna, Ark., reads:

I was born in a kingdom

Reared in an empire

Attained manhood in a territory

And now a citizen of a state

And have never been 100 miles from where I live

(The kingdom was Spain; the empire, France; the territory, acquired by the Louisiana Purchase; and the state, Arkansas.)

Daniel Emerson, an early settler of New Hampshire, is buried near Marlboro. He died in 1829, aged 82 years, and his marker shows this bit of advice:

The land I cleared is now my grave

Think well my friends how you behave.

It was a common practice in early times for a family to have its own private burial ground. The abandonment of many old cemeteries and the weathering away of wooden headboards make the verification of some published epitaphs impossible. The following two were reported to have been published first as early as 1880.

Here lies a man whose crown was won

By blowing in an empty gun

Throughout our history our military men have faced death to protect the nation they loved. They have also never been averse to griping when they felt it was justified, and in this case, even after death:

Ransom Beardsley

Died Jan 24 1850

aged 56 yr 7 mo 21 da

A vol in war of 1812

No Pension

Another stone marking the grave of a soldier gives only identifying information. It is located in Greensburg, Kan.:

Joseph D Mitchell 1836-1916

Serg Co A 123 Ill. Vol.

Wilders Brig Mtd. Inf.

Imbedded in the stone beneath this inscription is a hardtack biscuit. A note in the record states that the biscuit was sent home by this soldier while serving in the Civil War under General Sherman.

There are epitaphs for the famous and the infamous. Clara Barton, Angel of Mercy and founder of the American Red Cross, died in 1912 at 90 years of age. She lies buried in burial Knoll Cemetery, North Oxford, Mass., her inscription a quotation from one of her own letters:

Nature has provided cure and final rest

for all the heartache that mortals are

called to endure

In the home of her parents at Tuscumbia, Ala., is a framed poem written by Helen Keller, which would make a poignant, touching epitaph to her life. The words are beautiful. They read:


They took away what should have been my eyes,

(But I remembered Milton's Paradise).

They took away what should have been my ears,

(Beethoven came and wiped away my tears).

They took away what should have been my tongue,

(But I had talked with God when I was young).

He would not let them take away my soul -

Possessing that, I still possess the whole.

The final resting place of the notorious outlaw Jesse James is in Kearney, Mo. He was buried first on the family farm near Kearney. The original headstone, erected there by his mother and now almost entirely chipped away by souvenir hunters, bore these words:

In Loving Memory of

My Beloved Son

Jesse W James

Died Apr 3 1882

Aged 34 Yrs 6 mo 28 da

Murdered by a Traitor and

Coward whose Name is not

Worthy to Appear


The little village of Strange Creek, W.Va., received its name from a William Strange, who was lost in the area during a surveying expedition in 1795. The story was that his bones were found some years later beneath a tree on which he had carved:

Strange is my name and I'm on Strange ground

And Strange it is I can't be found

This epitaph, carved on a boulder, Mount Pisgah Cemetery, Cripple Creek, Colo., is unique because it fails to identify the departed, while indicating the cause of death:

He called

Bill Smith

A Liar

An America without immunization but with fear of dreaded communicable diseases, is recalled by these words from a board marker in Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone, Ariz.:

John Blair

Died of Smallpox

Cowboy Throwed Rope

Over Feet and dragged him

To his Grave

Dr. Thomas Fossett, physician of the 1880s, left his own medical record on the reverse side of his stone, Barnstable, Mass.:

I have practiced on the eclectic


in Mass Ohio and Mich for over

fifty years

and have never lost that number

of patients

The doctor referred to on the stone of Frances Cerny, aged 6, who died in 1902, was less successful. Today he could have faced a malpractice suit. The marker, located in St. Mary's Cemetery, Winona, Minn., bears this accusation:

Killed by unskilled Dr.

In the absence of TV and other media, business-minded stonecutters sometimes took occasion to advertise their wares and services, as shown on this example from an 1880 marker, Springdale, Ohio:

Here lies Jane Smith, wife of

Thomas Smith marble

cutter. This monument was erected

by her husband

as a tribute to her memory and a

speciman of his

work. Monuments of the same

style 50 dollars

Further advertising is found on a marker in Burlington Flat, N.Y. Note the unusual way some words are broken, and also the spelling.

This in me

Mory of Abig

al Chapin she was

wife to Gad C She died fir

of Aug 1806 in the 37th

year of her age

These stons formd and

lettord by William Goff

by the request of her kind

and friendly daughters

Price 20s

Markers to animals are not unusual. There are a number of famous rodeo horses buried on the grounds of The Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. One stone, dated 1910-36, reads:

Under this sod lies a great bucking hoss

There never lived a cowboy he couldn't toss

His name was Midnight, his coat black as coal

If there is a hoss-heaven, please God, rest his soul

A marker in memory of man's best friend is to be found in the Aspin Hill Cemetery, near Rockville, Md., on which is engraved:


Born a dog

Died a gentleman

Many short sermons and bits of advice are recorded on grave markers and intended for any who might read them. But the message found on the stone of Timothy Noyes, who died in 1718 at age 63 in Newbury, Mass., was meant particularly for his own family:

Good Timothy In

His Youthful Days

He lived Much

Unto God Prays

When Age Came On

He & His Wife

They Lived A Holy

& A Pious Life

Therefore You Children

Whose Name Is Noyes

Make Jesus Christ

Your Ondly Choyes

Sometimes the advice given is political rather than of a religious nature. B.H. Norris, aged 51, 1900, buried in the Bethel Methodist Cemetery near Montgomery City, Miss., left this injunction:

Kind friends I've

Left behind

Cast your vote for

Jennings Bryan

Neither of the two major political parties has been neglected. The story is that Elisha Bowman and Bed Mead were in disagreement as far as their political beliefs were concerned. Mead died at age 33 in 1865. The epitaph he wrote and requested be placed on his tombstone is located in Wilson's Cemetery, Pekin, Ind.:

He believed that nothing but the success of

the Democratic Party would ever save

this Union.

Mr. Grigsby, aged 78 at his death in 1890, buried in the Attica District Cemetery, Attica, Kan., took a differing view:

Through this inscription I wish to enter

my dying protest against what is called

the Democratic Party. I have watched it

closely since the days of Jackson and know

that all the misfortunes of our Nation have

come to it through the so called party

Therefore beware of this party of treason

A sentiment of more recent vintage is expressed in the Elgin, Minn., Cemetery records, where a family monument of Robert R. Hallenback proudly displays these words:

Now, should you consider writing your own epitaph, best to keep it brief, simple and above all, truthful, lest a reader of the future make an observation similar to this:

He lived an ordinary life,

And when time came to die,

Those glowing words upon his stone?

A monumental lie!

After due consideration and reading of many epitaphs, the following is the one I prefer:

I seek no glowing epitaph.

The best that I could get,

Are just these simple

five short words:

"She isn't here.

Not yet."