Grave Matters

by Mary Jackson (August 2011)

Spike Milligan's gravestone bears the epitaph: "I told you I was ill." But this isn't as good as the epitaph of a Mr Arthur Longbottom, who died at the tender age of twenty-six: "Ars longa, vita brevis." Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet, so I had to make it up. Even more unfortunately, I was not the first to do so.

Regular reader Alan once pointed me in the direction of a piece on epitaphs in the (pre-paywall) Times, expressing the hope, without intending any pun, that the subject has not been done to death:

A report today shows gravestones and the epitaphs thereon are in danger of being lost forever. So the hunt is on for the "most surprising, enigmatic, or bizarre" historical British gravestone epitaphs. Islamic gravestones are kept simple with a name and a date of birth only. Jewish gravestones often bear the Star of David.

Write your own below, or send us ones you've seen.

Here's a list of 10 remarkable epitaphs to get you started.

1. Here lies Ezekial Aikle
Aged 102
The good die young

2. Here lies an Atheist
All dressed up
And no place to go

3. A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough
Alexander the Great

4. The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents worn out, and  stript of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for worms. Yet the work itself shall not be lost, for it will, as he believed appear once more. In a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by its Author.
Benjamin Franklin

5. She did it the hard way
Bette Davis

6. The best is yet to come
Frank Sinatra

7. That's all folks!
Mel Blanc - voice of Bugs Bunny

8. I told you I was ill
Spike Milligan

9. Ope'd my eyes
Took a peep
Didn't like it
Went back to sleep.

10. Called back
Emily Dickinson

The comments have a couple of good ones:

"Sacred to the memory of MAJOR JAMES BRUSH, tragically killed by the accidental discharge of his pistol in the hand of his orderly.
14th April 1831"

And the Bible text placed at the bottom of the gravestone reads:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

And then there is the inscription for a Mr. Lester Moore in the cemetery at Tombstone, Arizona:

"Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a .44
No less, no more"

I think Tombstone, Arizona should be twinned with Gravesend, Kent.

On another occasion in The Times Ben MacIntyre celebrated the more detailed epitaph: 

As J.P.G.Taylor writes in his fascinating collection of English epitaphs, the epitaph “frequently informs in a way that modern inscriptions rarely do”. Epitaphs are not supposed to be true. The epitaph is a single pithy statement, either by or about the lately departed. There are few words more carefully crafted and carved out of the language: the epitaph writer has a very small page, and only a few words to play with.

“That's all, Folks!” reads the inscription on the headstone of Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny. Spike Milligan's grave memorably insists: “I told you I was ill.” Distinct from the one-liners are the exhortatory epitaphs: “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift... where savage indignation can tear his heart no more. Go, traveller, and if you can, imitate one who with his utmost strength protected liberty.” W.B.Yeats considered Swift's “the greatest epitaph in history”.

My favourite epitaphs are those that tell a story. In most instances the events behind the headstone can never be fully known, but the few words leave the taste of a mystery part-obscured.

Take, for example, the gravestone of Donald Robertson at Hillswick in the Shetland Islands, who died on June 4, 1847. “A peaceable, quiet man, and to all appearances a sincere Christian... his death was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch, who sold him nitre instead of Epsom salts, by which he was killed in the space of five hours after taking a dose of it.” Why do I feel that there is more to this story than Tulloch's chemical confusion? Perhaps it is the phrase “to all appearances”. If I were investigating Robertson's death, I would start by interviewing whoever paid for his gravestone, which fingers Tulloch but is unable to resist a small moral jab at the deceased.

An epitaph can offer an entire play in a few words, like that of Ellen Shannon in Nova Scotia, “Who was fatally burned March 21, 1879, by the explosion of a lamp filled with RE Danforth's Non-Explosive Burning Fluid”. I can find no other reference to Danforth's fluid. Shannon's gravestone appears to be the only place it was ever written down: in attempting to damn Danforth's Non-Explosive Burning Fluid from beyond the grave, Ellen Shannon gave this fatally misleading product eternal life.

All epitaphs are, in a way, warnings, but some read like health and safety announcements. Elizabeth Picket of Stoke Newington, her headstone proclaims, died in 1781 at the age of 23, “in consequence of her clothes taking fire”. The stone warns: “Reader if you ever should witness such an affecting scene; recollect that the only method to extinguish the flame is to stifle it by an immediate covering.”

The grave of the three Atwood sisters offers similarly grave counsel. The sisters “were poisoned by eating funguous vegetables mistaken for champignons” in 1808: “Let it be a solemn warning that in our most grateful enjoyments even in our necessary food may lurk deadly poison.” There is something rather touching about the sisters heading Heavenward with a severe mushroom warning attached.

I recently came across actor John Le Mesurier’s death notice, which he wrote himself. This is not exactly an epitaph, but it does give the reader an insight into his character. He was never one to make a fuss:

 

I have treated readers before to a death notice from the Bolton Evening News many years ago. It took the form of a poem, of which I remember only the last two lines:

And the Lord in His infinite mercy
Reached down from Heaven and took our Percy

Percy is not a sensible name, even for a man. It's something you "point at the porcelain". But I remember meeting a Canadian woman once called Percy-Anne. Is this normal over there?

The shortest epitaph I've ever heard of is in Linccolnshire:

Thorpe's Corpse

Lapidary or what? And finally, a mystery. I sometimes see strange things on my walks. Here is one of them. Look carefully at the inscriptions:

Gabriela, the wife, died a year before her husband, although she was thirteen years younger. She was "loved by many", an inscription added presumably by her husband Henry Lynch. Henry goes one better, and is described as "loved by all". Described by whom? By himself, presumably, in which case this piece of posthumous oneupmanship rather undermines the loving inscription on his wife's headstone. Or perhaps it was not the widower, Mr Lynch, who wished to score points, but a relation of his, or even a jealous second wife from a very short-lived marriage.

Why, in any case, does Gabriela's headstone say "everloving memory", while the memory of Henry is only "loving"?

What am I missing?

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