John T—-, Schoolmaster.
May he be punished as often as he punished us,
He was a hard old shell.
He said the Lord’s Prayer every morning.
May the Lord forgive him as often as he forgave us.
That was never.
We his scholars rear this stone over his ashes
Though they are not worth it.
We are glad his reign is over.

— Massachusetts tombstone, quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876


“He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.” — Marcus Aurelius

Waste Not, Want Not

Another gentleman, mentioned in the text-books … seemed to have a ruling passion against waste, which the court respected. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings; that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. In a letter attached to the will the testator said: ‘The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.’

— Basil Jones, “Eccentricities of Sane Testators,” Law Notes, November 1908

Image: Ken Steinhoff

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