Inscribed in stone in hundreds of old New England graveyards are the sometimes sad, sometimes funny epitaphs describing how people lived and how they died.
The moss- and lichen-covered stones tell tales of shipwrecked sailors, elderly ministers, smallpox victims, women who died in childbirth and children who died in infancy.
In East Hampton, Conn., an epitaph tells the story of an 87-year-old seaman who died in 1883.
Landsmen or sailors
For a moment avast,
Poor Jack’s main topsail
Is laid to the mast,
The worms gnaw his timbers,
His vessel a wreck,
When the last whistle sounds
He’ll be up on deck.
A Cape Cod fisherman was remembered with a similar wit:
Capt. Thomas Coffin
Born Jan. 7, 1792 Died Jan. 10, 1842
He has finished catching cod,
And gone to meet his God.
Epitaphs That Say How They Died
Some epitaphs focused on the manner of death, such as this on a tombstone in Kittery, Maine:
I was drowned, alas! In the deep, deep seases.
The blessed Lord does as he pleases.
But my Kittery friends did soon appear,
And laid my body right down here.
Rev. Bunker Day of Hinsdale, N.H., wrote an epitaph for Jonathan Tute, who died from smallpox despite his inoculation from the disease.
Here lies cut down, like unripe fruit,
A son of Mr. Amos Tute.
To death he fell a helpless prey,
On April V and Twentieth Day,
In seventeen Hundred Seventy-Seven
Quitting this world, we hope, for heaven.
Behold the amazing alteration,
Effected by inoculation;
The means empowered his life to save,
Hurried him headlong to the grave.
Mrs. Elizabeth Swain must have inspired great respect in life. When she died at 52 on Oct. 7, 1810, a stonecutter chiseled a long remembrance on her tombstone.
In all the endearing relations of
Life, Her conduct was stamp’d with the
Majesty of moral principal which
Commands respect, and with the beauty
Of propriety conciliates esteem
Through her last long and painful
Sickness she evinced the Christian and
With a firm hope in the redemption
She calmly bade the world farewell.
Many infants rest in peace in the old New England graveyards. Typical of the epitaphs for children is this one for 6-month-old Bezaleel Shaw in Old North Cemetery on Nantucket:
My life in infant Days was Spent
While to my parents I was lent
One smiling Look to them I gave
And then descended to the grave.
The brother of a dead man in Pelham, Mass., brought charges against his widow – on his gravestone:
Died by arsenic poison
March 23, 1860 Aged 36 years
5 months and 23 days
Think my friends when this you see
How my wife has dealt by me
She in some oysters did prepare
Some poison for my lot and share
Then of the same I did partake
And nature yielded to its fate
Before she my wife became
Mary Felton was her name.
Erected by his brother
William Gibbs never brought legal charges against Mary Felton Gibbs. Nor did anyone else.
A Connecticut man’s children had this epitaph carved on their father’s gravestone:
Our father lies beneath the sod,
His spirit’s gone unto his God;
We never more shall hear his tread,
Nor see the wen upon his head.
If your last name was Pease, your epitaph might have been similar to the one for Ezekiel Pease, found in a Nantucket cemetery:
Pease is not here,
Only his pod
He shelled out his Peas
And went to his God
Edwin Valentine Mitchell tells us the following well-known New England epitaphs may be apocryphal:
Here lies the body of Saphronia Proctor,
Who had a cold, but wouldn’t doctor.
She couldn’t stay, she had to go,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
And then this one:
Beneath this little mound of clay
Lies Captain Ephraim Daniels,
Who chose the dangerous month of May
To change his winter flannels.
A Reader Writes
Nathaniel King of Middleton, Mass., wrote that he and his sister rediscovered an old, forgotten graveyard in their town. Her Girl Scout troop later cleaned it up.
“In it there was a really great epitaph,” he wrote.
As you are now, So once was I
Rejoicing in my bloom;
As I am now, you too will lie;
Dissolving in your tomb.
Read more entertaining epitaphs here.
With thanks to It’s an Old New England Custom by Edwin Valentine Mitchell. This story about New England epitaphs was updated in 2023.
Images: Josiah Leavitt gravestone by By dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA – via email from author, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5636493.