New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Cemetery contains 16,000 headstones and only one statue, a life-size sandstone carving of Army private Dennis O’Leary, who died in 1901 at age 23.

Legend has it that O’Leary was stationed at lonely Fort Wingate, where he carved the statue himself, inscribed the death date, and shot himself. Military records show that a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis on this date. But then who carved the statue, and why?

Illiterate Epitaphs

Gertrude Walker died in 1893 at age 4 and lies in Lt. John Walker Cemetery near White Horn, Tenn. Her gravestone reads:


John Young, who died in 1836, lies in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Staten Island, New York. His reads:


The epitaph of James Ewins of East Derry, N.H., reads:


The stonecutter cut an M in place of an N.

(From Charles Langworthy Wallis, Stories on Stone, 1954)

The Bird of the Oxenhams

In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.

He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”

An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.

On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”

Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.

Intriguing Epitaphs

Grave marker in Folsom, N.M.:

In honored memory of Sarah J. Rooke
Telephone Operator
Who perished in the flood waters
of the Dry Cimarron at Folsom
New Mexico, August 27, 1908
while at her switchboard warning
others of the danger. With heroic
devotion she glorified her calling
by sacrificing her own life that
others might live.

Old South Cemetery, Montague, Mass.:

In Memory of Mr. Elijah Bardwell
who died Janry 26th 1786 in ye 27th
Year of his Age having but a few days
surviv’d ye fatal Night when he was
flung from his Horse & drawn by ye Stirrup
26 rods along ye path as appear’d by ye place
where his hat was found & where he had
Spent ye whole following severe cold night
treading ye Snow in a Small Circle.

Emily Spear, died 1901, age 64, Glendale Cemetery, Cardington, Ohio:

My husband
promised me
that my
body should
be cremated
but other

Lizzie Angell, died 1932, age 83, Forest Hill Cemetery, East Derry, N.H.:

I don’t know how to die.

Jennie E. Wilson, died 1882, age 29, College Hill Cemetery, Lebanon, Ill.:

She was more to me
Than I expected.

In Memoriam

Speaking of unfortunate names …

From Cedar Grove Cemetery, Patchogue, N.Y.

“People always grow up like their names,” wrote George Orwell. “It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric.”

(Thanks, Neil.)

Reaper Madness

Suppose we find some coherent way to formulate the view that a person’s death is a misfortune for him because it deprives him of goods. Then we face another Epicurean question: when is it a misfortune for him? It seems wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him while he is still alive — for at such times he is not yet dead and death has not yet deprived him of anything. It seems equally wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him after he is dead — for at such times he does not exist. How can he suffer misfortunes then?

— Fred Feldman, “Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death,” The Philosophical Review, April 1991

Exit Strategies

The Roman senator who dies as a result of plunging a dagger into his heart commits suicide. He kills himself. But what about the twentieth-century suicide who places his head on the railway line and is crushed to death by the train he normally catches each morning to the office? Wasn’t he killed by the train? Then did he kill himself into the bargain too? Exactly what was it that killed him? What do you have to have done in order to count as having killed yourself?

— T.S. Champlin, Reflexive Paradoxes, 1988

Partisan Epitaphs

Through this inscription I wish to enter my dying protest against what is called the Democratic Party. I have watched it closely since the days of Jackson and know that all the misfortunes of our Nation have come to it through the so called party. Therefore beware of this party of treason.

— N. Grigsby (1812-1890), Attica, Kan.

He believed that nothing but the success of the Democratic Party would ever save this Union.

— Elisha Bowman (1832-1865), Pekin, Ind.

The Family of Robert T. Hallenbeck
None of us ever voted for
Roosevelt or Truman

— Elgin, Minn.

Kind friends I’ve
Left behind
Cast your vote for
Jennings Bryan.

— B.H. Norris (1849-1900), Montgomery City, Mo.

Sacred to the memory of Henry Devine
a native of Ireland,
who died in Port Gibson
November 7th, 1844. Aged 32 years.
During the protracted illness which preceded
his death the deceased often expressed a wish
only to live long enough to vote for Henry
Clay for the Presidency. His wish was granted.
The last act of his life was to vote the Whig
ticket having done which he declared that he
died satisfied.

— Wintergreen Cemetery, Port Gibson, Miss.

Dead Letters

In a trance in 1926, medium Geraldine Cummins wrote out messages transmitted to her by a disembodied spirit who had died 1900 years earlier. Architect Frederick Bligh Bond transcribed, punctuated, and arranged the messages. When Bond published these in a newspaper, Cummins sued him. This raises an interesting legal question: Who holds the copyright?

In an extempore judgment, Justice J. Eve wrote that, although all parties agreed that “the true originator of all that is found in these documents is some being no longer inhabiting this world,” the medium’s “active cooperation” had helped to translate them into modern language. This might make her a joint author with the disembodied spirit, but “recognizing as I do that I have no jurisdiction extending to the sphere in which he moves,” he found that “authorship rests with this lady.”

Bond had claimed that the writing had no living author, that, in Eve’s words, “the authorship and copyright rest with some one already domiciled on the other side of the inevitable river.” But “That is a matter I must leave for solution by others more competent to decide it than I am. I can only look upon the matter as a terrestrial one, of the earth earthy, and I propose to deal with it on that footing. In my opinion the plaintiff has made out her case, and the copyright rests with her.”


A man was killed by a circular saw, and in his obituary notice it was stated that he was ‘a good citizen, an upright man and an ardent patriot, but of limited information with regard to circular saws.’

— James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

All Bark

So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

— Epicurus


In the late 1880s, the body of a 16-year-old girl was pulled from the Seine. She was apparently a suicide, as her body showed no marks of violence, but her beauty and her enigmatic smile led a Paris pathologist to order a plaster death mask of her face.

In the romantic atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe the girl’s face became an ideal of feminine beauty. The protagonist of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge writes, “The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two plaster masks beside his door. [One is] the face of the young drowned woman, which they took a cast of in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, because it smiled so deceptively, as if it knew.”

Ironically, in 1958 the anonymous girl’s features were used to model the first-aid mannequin Rescue Annie, on which thousands of students have practiced CPR. Though the girl’s identity remains a mystery, her face, it’s said, has become “the most kissed face of all time.”

Dry Run

In 1951 Colorado farmer Jim Gernhart held a rehearsal of his own funeral. He watched as eight pallbearers carried a casket from his home to a waiting hearse, then attended it to the local armory, where almost half of Burlington, Colo., turned out for a funeral sermon by the Rev. S.H. Mahaffey.

Gernhart also bought a $465 headstone and a cemetery lot, and the local newspaper even published an obituary. “Real nice funeral, ain’t it?” Gernhart remarked. “Does a man good to see so many people out to bury him.”

Dress Blues

“All this buttoning and unbuttoning.”

— Anonymous 18th-century suicide note, cited in The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations

Fair Enough

The grave of Arthur Haine in the City Cemetery [of Portland, Oregon], between 10th and 13th Streets, is marked by a stone of his own design and the epitaph, ‘Haine Haint.’ Haine, who died in 1907, left a will saying, ‘Having lived as an atheist I want to be buried like one — without any monkey business.’

— Federal Writers’ Project, Oregon Trail: The Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, 1939

“Effen Uyt”

These Flemish Words are on a very antient funeral Monument of whitish Marble, on which are engraved a Pair of Slippers of a very singular kind. Effen Uyt means Exactly. The Story is, that a Man tolerably rich, and who dearly loved good Eating, took it into his Head that he was only to live a certain Number of Years, and no longer. In this Whimsey he counted that if he spent so much a Year, his Estate and his Life would expire together. It happened by chance that he was not deceived in either of these Computations. He died precisely at the Time he had prescribed to himself in his Imagination, and had then brought his Fortune to such a Pass, that, after paying his Debts, he had nothing left but a Pair of Slippers. His Relations buried him creditably, and would have the Slippers carved on his Tomb, with the abovementioned Laconic Device.

— John Hackett, Select and Remarkable Epitaphs on Illustrious and Other Persons, in Several Parts of Europe, 1757


Epitaph of the eminent barrister Sir John Strange:

Here lies an honest lawyer,–
that is Strange.

From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.

Checking Out

Can a man imagine himself witnessing his own funeral? Antony Flew writes:

The crux is that there is a world of difference between: on the one hand, imagining what it would be like to witness my own funeral; and, on the other hand, imagining what it would be like for me to witness my own funeral. … The question at issue is a question about possible pictures and possible captions. Everyone knows what picture fits the first caption. What picture is it which fits, and justifies, the second caption?

I can imagine what it’s like to be Napoleon. But can I imagine what it’s like for me to be Napoleon?

“Surely I can perfectly well imagine my own funeral, really my own funeral with my body in the coffin and not a substitute corpse or a weight of bricks; with me there watching it all, but invisible, intangible, a disembodied spirit? Well, yes, this seems all right — until someone asks the awkward question ‘Just how does all this differ from your imagining your own funeral without your being there at all (except as a corpse in the coffin)?'”

A Spoonful of Sugar

For out-and-out politeness commend us to Mr. Justice Graham, who when once presiding at the Old Bailey in the days when the law sent crowds to the gallows, had to sentence no less than sixteen prisoners to death. In reading out their names he inadvertently missed one — John Robins — and then with due solemnity exhorted them to prepare for their doom, and pronounced on each the sentence of death. The condemned left the dock, and his lordship’s attention was called to the fact that he had omitted to read John Robin’s name. ‘Bring him back,’ said the Judge. ‘By all means let John Robins step forward.’ Back came the unfortunate man, and Graham, addressing him in his singularly courteous manner, assured him that ‘the omission was purely accidental, and I ask your pardon for my mistake. I am very sorry, and can only add that you will be hanged with the rest.’

Law Notes, March 1905


The four young stars of Rebel Without a Cause all died prematurely:

  • James Dean was killed in an auto accident at 24.
  • Natalie Wood drowned at 43.
  • Nick Adams overdosed at 37.
  • Sal Mineo was murdered at 37.

See Fallout.


At Frank Sinatra’s funeral, friends and family members were invited to place items of personal significance into his coffin. Reportedly these included:

  • several Tootsie Rolls
  • a pack of Black Jack chewing gum
  • a roll of wild cherry Life Savers
  • a ring engraved with the word Dream
  • a mini-bottle of Jack Daniel’s
  • a pack of Camel cigarettes and a Zippo lighter
  • 10 dimes

Why 10 dimes? “He never wanted to get caught not able to make a phone call,” his daughter Tina told Larry King.


The son of William Henry Harrison, John Scott Harrison, served two terms in Congress but spent the rest of his life quietly on his farm in Ohio. At his interment there in 1878 it was discovered that an adjoining grave had recently been robbed, so Harrison’s son and nephew traveled to Cincinnati to seek the missing body.

They visited several medical schools but found nothing, and were about to give up when they noticed a tautened rope leading into chute in the dissecting room of the Ohio Medical College. On turning the windlass they brought up a naked body and discovered to their horror that it was Harrison himself, his body stolen somehow from a guarded brick vault less than 24 hours after his burial.

By a curious further coincidence, Harrison’s son Benjamin himself eventually grew up to be president, making John Scott Harrison the only man in history to be both son and father of a U.S. president. But no one knows who stole his body, how, or how it came to be suspended in that dissecting room.

Orderly Exits

But the superstitious noted that the death of Prince Albert Victor on a Thursday broke a remarkable spell or curse which had hung over the present royal family of England for more than a century and three-quarters — bringing about the death of all the prominent members of that family on Saturdays. William III died Saturday, March 18, 1702; Queen Anne died Saturday, August 1, 1714; George I died Saturday, June 10, 1727; George II died Saturday, October 25, 1760; George III died Saturday, January 29, 1820; George IV died Saturday, June 26, 1830; the Duchess of Kent died Saturday, March 16, 1861; the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria and grandfather of the recent deceased Prince Albert Victor, died Saturday, December 14, 1861; Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, Victoria’s second daughter, and sister of Albert, died Saturday, December 14, 1878. The shadows which overhung the late prince’s life are said to have been darkened by a superstitious fear which caused him to keep close in-doors on Saturdays.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

A Ghoul and His Money

In 1771, two heirs, a Mr. Pigot and a Mr. Codrington, made a wager as to whose father would die first. A friend computed the odds based on each father’s age, and when Codrington objected that these were unfair, the Earl of March agreed to stand in his place. They agreed that Pigot would pay March 500 guineas if his own father died before Sir William Codrington, and March would pay Pigot 1,600 guineas if Codrington died first.

Unfortunately, old Pigot was already dead — he had died at 2 a.m. that very morning. On learning this, his son refused to pay the wager, contending that the contract was void, “for there was no possibility of the defendant’s winning, his father being then actually dead, and therefore he ought not to lose.” But March sued him and won.

“It was sneakingly mean and inconsiderate in the old man to die in this underhand way, and thus subject his son, the companion of young noblemen, to the mortification of having bet against a dead certainty,” writes Irving Browne in Humorous Phases of the Law (1876). “But it was what you might expect of old Pigot, for the record does not show that he was of noble blood, and so we infer he was plebeian, and knew no better.”