Friday, April 25, 2008

Pause As You Pass By

Copyright by Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG

Death isn’t funny, which is probably why we need to laugh at it now and then. Don’t we all sing along with the Munchkins when they chant “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” in the Wizard of Oz? Haven’t we all joined in singing “Ring Around the Rosy” when we were children? That song actually refers to the bubonic plague, you know.

Death pursues us from the moment of our birth and we all know that someday, somehow death will catch us. So, why shouldn’t we have the last laugh. Hence, the epitapth.

There are actually a number of different types of epitaphs - from the factual to the cautionary to those that tell a story and then there are the epitaphs that are just plain funny.

Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph is factual and, as he requested, reflects the things that he had given people, not what people had given him. His epitaph reads thus:
Author Of The Declaration
Of American Independence
Of The Statute Of Virginia
For Religious Freedom
And Father Of The University Of Virginia
Born April 2, 1743 O.S.
Died July 4, 1826

Notice that it does not state that he was President of the United States of America.

It is easy to identify cautionary epitaphs - they have a lesson to convey. The most well known of the cautionary epitaphs is the following:

Traveler, pause as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Prepare for Death and follow me.

A briefer version of this epitaph says the same thing, but in fewer words:

Death is a Debt
By Nature Due
I’ve paid my Shot
And So must you

Tombstones with cautionary epitaphs often have artwork to replect the same theme. These tombstones usually date from the 1700s or very early 1800s and often have a skull and crossbones, Father Time or an hour glass showing time has run out. One reason for such graphic artwork is that many people could not read at that time, but they surely could get the message from the artwork on the tombstones.

Many of these tombstones were made of slate, which often look as sharp and easy to read as when they were erected. Many examples of these tombstones can be found in the old church graveyards in older cities in the East and Southeast. Few, if any, will be found in western Kentucky graveyards as our area was settled much later.

Epitaphs on the tombstones of children fall into an entirely separate category. Often the grave markers for young children will have a lamb resting on top of the tombstone or may have a cherub on the front of the stone. The epitaphs are usually very poignant.

Most of the tombstones found in western Kentucky are factual with the following being recorded: name of the decedent, date of death and often the date of birth or age at the time of death. Sometimes you will find one that gives more information, such as the tombstone of Esther Love, who is buried at Piney Fork Cemetery in Crittenden County. Esther Love’s epitaph says:
My Name was Esther Love, Daughter of Wm. & Nancy Calhoun of Abbeville, South Carolina. Esther was born Sept. 30, 1765 and died Mar. 2, 1844. It goes on to say “My Husband Wm. Love, Killed by the Harps Aug 1799. Blessed are the dead which died in the Lord.”

As you can see, the last line or two was below ground level when the photograph above was made in 1990. The last time I visited Piney Fork, this stone was in sad shape.

Other epitaphs will tell a story and you might have to listen closely to get the meaning. My all-time favorite epitaph is the following:

He found a rope and picked it up
And with it walked away
It happened that to the other end
A horse was hitched they say
They took the rope and tied it up
Unto a hickory limb
It happened that the other end
Was somehow hitched to him.

A perfect example of the “down right funny” epitaph is the following, which is said to be found on side-by-side grave markers in an old Pennsylvania church yard:

Grieve not for me my husband dear
I am not dead, but sleeping here
With patience wait, prepare to die
And in a short time, you’ll come to I.

On the husband’s tombstone is written:
I am not grieved, my dearest life
Sleep on, I’ve found another wife
Therefore, I cannot come to thee
For I must go and live with she.

All joking aside, death isn’t funny, but if we can create a little laughter in the midst of sadness, it may be easier to deal with the death.

Published 25 April 2008, Western Kentucky Genealogy Blog,

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