During my freshman year at Ohio University, I made a most fascinating discovery close to what is now Arts West. Even as a very young person I found reading epitaphs most intriguing; and when I told some of my friends of this interest, one girl remarked that I was morbid.
So I invited her and several others to accompany me on a Saturday afternoon walk up that long West State Street hill to visit a quaint cemetery. I still remember their reactions to our tombstone travels.
“I can’t believe all of the history here.” I remember two epitaphs very well: “Hanged in Cleveland in accordance with the law for the murder of his sweetheart.” Another read, “He was with Washington when he crossed the Delaware.” I revisited this cemetery a few years ago, but unfortunately time and most likely vandals have wiped out the history and memories that were once recorded there.
We can learn a lot about a departed person by reading his/her epitaph. For example, near my parents’ grave is the resting place of a dear friend, Gary Covert. The inscription “Always by my side, forever in my heart” tells the reader that this man’s wife dearly loved him. Other epitaphs, however, tell different stories of marriage.
For example, A Small Book of Grave Humor records this one from an English cemetery: “Here lies the body of Elizabeth, wife of Major General Hamilton, who was married forty-seven years and never did one thing to disoblige her husband.” Another epitaph from England tells of an unhappy marriage. “Here lies Mary, the wife of John Ford. We hope her soul had gone to the Lord. But if for Hell she has changed this life, she’d be better off there than be John Ford’s wife.”
One observation I’ve made from my travels through cemeteries is that most people are proudest of their family. So many inscriptions read “Parents of…” I loved this one I read on-line. “Raised four beautiful daughters with only one bathroom, and still there was love.”
Some have chosen to record proud accomplishments. My father, for example, chose “World War II, US Navy” as part of his memorial inscription. Billy Wilder’s epitaph humbly records his accomplishments. “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.” Some women have been so proud of their culinary skills that they have left recipes on their headstones as I discovered from an on-line search. One lady named Kay left her fudge recipe and another woman included a cookie recipe as part of her legacy.
An English woman, Phoebe Crew, has left this memory recorded on her gravestone. “During 40 years as a midwife in this city brought into the world 9730 children.” Another British woman, Mary Yates, had led an amazing life. “She walked to London after the fire in 1666, was hearty and strong at 120 years and married a third husband at 92.”
Other epitaphs reveal human frailties or idiosyncrasies. I love this one. “Here lie Steve and Anya in eternal bliss. Master Card and Visa still looking for payments missed.” And, “I was hoping for a pyramid” most likely speaks of another frailty.
A headstone in Logan’s Oak Grove Cemetery is one that had interested me for some time because it has just one word, Verna. My father told me the story behind this memorial. Verna did not want anyone to know her age and literally took the secret to her grave!
Another one my favorites is in Fairview Cemetery, close to our family plot. It stands as a humorous memorial to frugality. “I bought this tombstone on sale at 60 percent off.”
Some epitaphs offer political comments like this one. “Thanks for stopping by. However, unless you are a true Democrat who also believes in and supports labor unions, please make your visit brief.”
Tombstone, Arizona, is the final resting place of many notorious characters of the old West, including a man named George. “Here lies George Johnson. Hanged by mistake in 1882. He was right. We was wrong. But we strung him up and now he’s gone.”
Tombstone is not the only cemetery with records of how the departed person met his fate. “George Spencer Millet: Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in the office of Metropolitan Life Building.”
This inscription from an English cemetery warns against indiscretion. “Here lies a lewd fellow, who while he drew breath in the midst of life was in quest of death, which he quickly obtained for it cost him his life for being in bed with another man’s wife.”
There are also those whose enjoyment of puns followed them to their graves. “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.” This epitaph is found in London. “To the memory of Emma and Maria Littleboy, the twin children of George and Emma Littleboy who died July 16, 1837. Two Littleboys lie here; yet strange to say. These Littleboys are girls.”
Naturally, many tombstone inscriptions speak of our mortality like this one. “Dr. Helen Tyler 1902-1995. The doctor will see you soon.”
Of all the epitaphs I’ve read about or have seen, my favorite is that of Ruth Graham, wife of famed evangelist, Billy Graham. Her memorial reads, “End of construction. Thank you for your patience.”
Thus, I end my tombstone travels with the epitaph of Mel Blanc, the voice of many cartoon characters. “That’s all, folks.”
Karen Kornmiller writes a bi-weekly column published in The Logan Daily News. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.