Graven Images

PrintPrintEmailEmail Behold and see as you pass by As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so you will beÔ Prepare for Death and follow me.

During the Victorian era it was a popular pastime to stroll among the rows of lichen-covered stones deciphering epitaphs and copying off choice selections. Such collections were sometimes published in small editions for distribution among one’s friends and relatives, thereby preserving much that has since been lost through neglect and vandalism. Epitaphs of the famous were most sought after, but it was the rare anthology that did not include at least one account of someone’s strange or sudden demise, like that of Amasa Brainard, Jr., shown in our rubbing on page 19.

Much of the humor traditionally associated with New England cemeteries was unintentional. Since spelling had not yet been standardized, many unschooled stonecutters figured out their words phonetically. But these flawed messages, in spite of inconsistencies even in their misspellings, were usually direct and clear enough to those who first read them. It was not until later that aspiring sophisticates began to look upon such epitaphs as quaint. The gravestone for Marcy Halle in Glastonbury, Connecticut, who “decesed August the 21th, 1719, Aged 38 Years,” epitomized this comedy of errors with a tortured bit of verse:

Here Lies one who os life s thrads Cut a sunder She was strucke dead by a clap of thundr

On a gravestone in Holyoke, Massachusetts, one can read that

Mr. Nathl Parks Who on 21st of March 1794 being out a hunting & Concealed in a ditch was Casually shot by Mr. Luther Frink

This was not, as a modern reader might think, a deliberate act of callousness. In modern times the word casual has come generally to mean “unconcerned,” “offhand,” or “careless,” but its common meaning in those days was “accidental” or “unexpected.”

A rather famous stone is that of Lieutenant Mehuman Hinsdell of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who died in 1736. Part of its text reads:

… first male child born in this place and was twice captivated by the Indian salvages.

Salvage for savage appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as archaic, captivate for capture as obsolete. And the laughter thus dies down.

“My glass is run” was an expression quite common in the days when time was reckoned by hourglasses, and a life’s brief span ended in the allegorical sense much as the sands in a glass were run. On at least two gravestones, those of James Ewins, 1781, of East Derry, New Hampshire, and Ebenezer Tinney, 1813, in Grafton, Vermont, an additional curvilinear cut extended the n to an m and therefore radically changed the implication.

One startling inscription included in many collections is, “Lord, she is thin.” One can only speculate why the final e was dropped—forgetfulness, lack of space, or an attempted phonetic spelling; perhaps it was merely truth.

Epitaphs were often blunt in their accusations, and a visitor to an old cemetery might not be surprised to read that someone had been “Killed by unskilled Dr.” or a woman was “Talked to death by friends.” (It still happens.) Confirmed bachelors in Plymouth, Massachusetts, may well have thought that James Jordan, who “Drowned in Smelt Pond,” had been spared a fate worse than death when he was “Buried on the day he was to have been Married.” A stone in Providence, Rhode Island, tells a similar story:

Sidney Snyder, 1823 age 20 The wedding day decided was The wedding wine provided; But ere the day did come along He’d drunk it up and died, did. Ah Sidney! Ah Sidney!

In Bradford, Massachusetts, a monument was erected to the memory of Nathaniel Thurston, who finally met his match in i8ll, aged fifty-six. In a row beside him stand six slate stones commemorating six of his seven wives.

According to a stone in New Haven, Connecticut, things were less harmonious for some husbands than others: