The waning of the tombstone epitaph takes with it the chance to peek into an ingenuous era, a time when survivors seemed compelled to squeeze on tombstones the essentials of a loved one’s life and the accident or disease that carried them away.
When people drowned, for example, their epitaph often described how it occurred. After a 62-year-old Coventry, CT man drowned, a monument was erected:
"in Memory of Capt Joseph Talcott
who was Casually Drowned in the
Proud Waters of the Scungamug River…"
Interpret "drown casually" as you wish. Maybe he slipped, but most certainly if he’d been pushed, it would have been duly noted.
Over a century later, we can still walk the walk of two-year-old Abel Silas McMahon’s father as he approached the cistern with his heart in his mouth.
"In a moment he fled;
He ran to the cistern and raised the lid—
His father looked in, then did behold
His child lay dead and cold."
And feel, too, the sadness after a pond lured a 13-year-old boy who was probably guilty of no more than trying to escape Vermont’s August heat:
"This blooming Youth in Health most fair
To his Uncle’s Mill-pond did repaire,
Undressed Himself and so plunged in
But never did come out again."
Even though three English women—Hester, Anne and Ann—met a watery death, their chroniclers felt it significant to note they were prepared better than most to meet their Maker, as they "were unfortunately drowned at Chepstow on the evening of Saturday Septr. 20th 1812, after hearing a sermon from Philippians 1st chapter 21st verse."
—Or maybe a dull sermon had put them to sleep as they made their way home?
When disease or accident didn’t kill our ancestors, attempted cures often did. As in the case of Benjamin Rowe Esq,
"Who after a Life of great usefullness
& patiently enduring 4 years ilness
with a dropsy underwent the Operation
of Tapping 67 times
From his body was drawn 2385 pounds of water
quietly departed this Life the 28 day
of March Anno Domini 1790 in
the 71st year of his age."
With the waning practice of representing one’s death and life in gravestone poetry, we’re losing a nostalgic piece of American culture. Today’s practices might be more reverently dignified, but they’re less likely to send people into modern cemeteries, brushing chalk across the letters to reveal once-commonly quaint remembrances.
Source: “Over Their Dead Bodies, Yankee Epitaphs and History” by Thomas C. Mann & Janet Greene (1962 and 1990).