- Historic Sites
Sermons in Stones
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Here lies the body of Obadiah Wilkinson And Ruth, his wife “Their warfare is accomplished”
Somehow, as could be expected, women continued to have the last word, even in death. In Burlington, Vermont, one learns:
She lived with her husband fifty years And died in a confident hope of a better life.
Still another relict composed this possibly ambiguous tribute:
Stranger, call this not a place of fear and gloom To me it is a pleasant spot—it is my husband’s tomb.
In 1880 a stonecutter took enough pride in his work to advertise it on his spouse’s gravestone:
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 specimen of his work. Monuments of the same style 350 dollars.
But an enterprising young widow had already gone him one better on a stone reported from Lincoln, Maine:
Sacred to the Memory of Mr. Jared Bates who Died Aug. the 6th 1800. His widow aged 24 who mourns as one who can be comforted lives at 7 Elm street this village and possesses every qualification for a good Wife.
Over the years when it was fashionable to relate the manner in which a person left this world, some strange and ironic accounts were chiselled onto stone. There is a strong colonial imprint on epitaphs that tell of men killed by Indian arrows or whales; or “instantly killed by a stagecoach passing over him”; or “by the accidental discharge of a cannon…; or “Casually Drowned in the Proud Waters of the Scungamug River.” As remote in thought as in time is the ghastly story engraved on a a stone in Montague, Massachusetts:
In Memory of Mr. Elijah Bardwell who died Janry 26th 1786 in ye 27th Year of his Age having but a few days surviv’d ye fatal Night when he was flung from his Horse & drawn by ye Stirrup 26 rods along ye path as appear’d by ye place where his hat was found & where he had Spent ye whole following severe cold night treading ye Snow in a small circle
Common ailments were everywhere, enough of them fatal to keep the stonecutters busy. Fevers carried off young and old alike. Men died gloriously as soldiers fighting Indian battles and in the War for Independence. But they also died of occupational hazards.
One man was “exploded in a powder mill,” and another was “Casually Killed by his Wagon”; sailors were “Lost at Sea”; men tumbled from heights; and one “at a barn raising fell down from the roof.” Still another dared temptation: “that Cherry Tree of luscious fruit beguiled him too high. A branch did break and down he fell and broke his neck.”
With the coming of industrialism the mills provided a catchall of unusual accidents:
Solomon Towslee Jr Who was kill’d in Pownal Vt. July 15, 1846, while repairing to Grind a sithe on a stone atach’d to the Gearing in the Woollen Factory, he was entangled, his death was sudden & awful.
A philosophical stone in Harvard, Massachusetts, cites the mysterious machinations of fate:
In memory of Capt. Thomas Stetson Who was killed by the fall of a tree Nov. 28 1820 AE. 68 Nearly 30 years he was master of a vessel and left that employment at the age of 48 for the less hazardous one of cultivating his farm. Man is never secure from the arrest of death.
The accusing finger stabbed at some ad man after a young lady “was fatally Burned. … by the explosion of a lamp Filled with R. F. Danforth’s Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.”
Women gentled America’s rugged frontiers, and when a man’s beloved helpmate “exchanged worlds,” only the purest and most heartfelt sentiments were directed to her gravestone. A widower’s honest tribute stated simply: “She was more than I expected.” But there were exceptions, of course, and if the oft-quoted stone actually exists, a truly vindictive husband finally got his revenge:
Here lies my wife A Slattern and Shrew If I said I missed her I should lie here, too!
Another’s intention may have been nobler, but the words on a Keene, New Hampshire, monument arouse doubts: