By Thomas D’Agostino
The Puritans certainly loved to write epitaphs. What they did not say in their daily life became the poetry upon the stones of their loved ones. Many took on an amusing tone, versed nicely while telling a short story or limerick of the person buried beneath the stone. These small witty verses often served as a diversion to the darkness of death, putting a lighter side to the inevitable.
Perhaps it was the Puritan way of letting loose some of the creativity that lacked in their daily lifestyle.
Cotton Mather was known to wander the burial grounds reading the epitaphs as a muse for his own creations. It was his belief that a stone was not complete without some sort of homage in verse written upon it. Mather sometimes wrote his verses in Latin. Very few of his time could read English, let alone Latin. But even the most uneducated had no trouble deciphering the visual art that spoke so loudly to them about the soul and the resurrection.
When a loved one died it was often the family’s duty to create an epitaph. Not all loved ones sought humor in their commemorative to the deceased. From the rich to the most financially humble of society, epitaphs adorn stones across the region. Some are beautiful verse, others pay a tribute to the life of the deceased and then there are those that where the opportunity arose, to add a touch of humor and wit. This became an opportunity for the otherwise somber to let their hair down and add humor when the occasion called for it.
Although not so common in our modern times, idea of humor in verse on a gravestone still occasionally turns up. Below are some examples of wit and humor found on New England gravestones.
This one was common for infants who died so young:
The rose was sweet awhile
Now its odour vile
This one is on the stone of Sidney Snider who died in 1823 at Providence, Rhode Island:
The wedding day decided was,
The wedding wine provided;
But ere the day did come along
He drunk it up and died, did
Ah Sidney! Ah Sidney!
Jonathan Kilborn, an inventor, is buried in Colchester, Connecticut
He was a man of invention great
Above all that lived nigh
But he could not invent to live
When God called him to die.
This well-known epitaph can be found in the Old North Cemetery in Nantucket, Massachusetts:
Under the sod Under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease
He is not here But only his pod
He has shelled out his peas
And gone to his God
This is another well-known epitaph:
In Memory of Beza Wood
Departed this life
Nov. 2, 1837
Aged 45 yrs.
Here lies one Wood
Enclosed in wood
The outer wood is very good:
We cannot praise the other.
Here is one that the in-laws were sure not to approve.
Sacred to the memory of Anthony Drake
Who died for peace and quietness sake;
His wife was constantly scolding and a scoffin;
So he sought for repose in a twelve dollar coffin.
Here is another where the writers took advantage of a special name for their wit.
On the 22nd of June
Went out of tune.
Here is one more to make you think.
A victim of fast women and slow horses.
There are the very common ones like, “I told you I was sick,” or “I was somebody. Who, is no business of yours.”
These are often borrowed and altered slightly to become more original than the last, but the idea remains the same.
In closing, one small epitaph stands out in the Grove Street Cemetery in Putnam, Connecticut, that Phineas G. Wright had put on his stone to sum up his feelings on the afterlife.
Going. But no not where.
Take a walk through an old burial yard and admire the artwork on the stones. Take time to read some of the epitaphs that tell of a time long ago in both humor and praise.