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 2022.
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.
Out of curiosity, which burial ground is this one pictured?
Wow, that’s interesting!
I liked this one I saw in Deerfield, MA: come hither mortal cast an eye then go thy way prepare to die and read thy doom for die thou must one day like me return to dust
A favorite pass time when driving around W.Mass. is to stop at really old graveyards and read the gravestones…some are very funny
There is a grave in the old cemetery across from the Woodcock Garrison house which holds Ceasar. He was a plane maker in the 1700’s. Eventually he gained his freedom from slavery. When he died he was buried in a grave that read “Here lies the noblest of slaves. Ceasar the Ethiopian, now turning into dust, craves a place among the just. His soul has fled to the realms of heavenly light and by the blood of Jesus Christ has changed from black to white.” I think the date says 1796.
The picture is of a cemetery in Sandwich, Mass. Down the street from town hall.
Very interesting I enjoyed reading them.
One of my favorites, found in Fitzwilliam, NH
“This stone marks the grave of doctor Peter Clark Grosvenor, whose ancestry was respectable, whose intellectual & active powers were strong, whose education was liberal, whose increasing usefullness endeared his life to the world, and whose early death opened incurable wounds in the breasts of his relations and friends. . . 1794.”
Nancy Mudge Charter Street Burying Point Salem Ma.
I have been to Salem five times and each time I go I pay my respects to Nancy’s grave. Her epitaph is the loveliest I’ve ever read.
There’s a woman buried here who’s name is Thankful Bliss. What kind of fucking curse is that???
There is a lot of information on stone symbolism and classes as well. I did a lot of research on it when I wrote a walking tour for our towns historical cemetary. It is all fascinating.
Love old cemeteries!
Old Wethersfield and Old Windsor cemeteries in CT are favorites
Jared Paul Kraus
[…] rested. Older men would carry the pall, which draped the casket. In cases where the distance to the graveyard was extremely far, a second set of under bearers would be assigned to spell the first […]
Take a virtual tour of the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich at http://mementomoriipswich.org/
Great story. There are also many markers of 18th century African heritage people across New England including the largest collection in Newport, Rhode Island at http://www.colonialcemetery.com/
Great story. There are also many markers across New England of 18th century African heritage persons with the largest collection in Newport, Rhode Island.
[…] Rybczynski offered an anecdote that demonstrated Olmsted’s farsightedness: Montgomery Meigs, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army, wrote him a letter five years after the Civil War. Meigs, who respected Olmsted, asked his advice in landscaping national cemeteries. […]
[…] some of the Squalus crew, May 23, 1939 would be carved on their headstones. For others, it would mark a 39-hour ordeal they would live with for the rest of their lives. And […]
[…] in 1967, and Christina Olson died a month later. They were buried on their property in their family cemetery. Andrew Wyeth died on Jan. 16, 2009. He, too, was buried in the Olson family […]
[…] Death was very much on the minds of the early Puritan mothers. The New England wilderness was dangerous. About 20 percent of children died in their first year, and as many as 40 percent failed to reach adulthood. […]
This is an old article at this point, but nonetheless I wanted to share. I am from Middleton, MA and there was an old burial ground long forgotten rediscovered by my sister and I (and cleaned up by her GS Troop after). In it there was a really great epitaph:
“As you are now, So once was I
Rejoicing in my bloom;
As I am now, you too will lie;
Dissolving in your tomb.”
Comments are closed.