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.”