Many forget that we should learn to be wise enough to laugh at the world and ourselves. Without laughter–the universal tonic for all melancholic maladies–it becomes ever easier to take ourselves too seriously, and to retreat into comfortable recesses of our own minds that promise nothing but stagnation and sterility. This may be the unconscious message of the humorous epitaph: a warning to the living that our time here is not unlimited, and that unless we appreciate the idea of memento mori, we are living in delusion. Few things are so grim that we cannot make light of them somehow.
In 1900, Arthur Wentworth Eaton published a now-forgotten volume called Funny Epitaphs. It is a slim book, barely amounting to eighty pages. I bought it at a used book fair yesterday for a dollar. Eaton provides no information on how he collected the epitaphs; apparently they were just noted by him in his travels through the North Atlantic and the British Isles. Here are a few of them.
Near Williamsport, Pennsylvania:
Tread softly mortals o’er the bones
Of this world’s wonder, Captain Jones,
Who told his glorious deeds to many
Yet was never believed by any.
Posterity let this suffice
He swore all’s true, yet here he lies.
Beneath this stone of granite hard
Lies my own beloved pard.
In a cemetery in Lyme, Connecticut:
Close behind this stone
Here lies alone
Captain Reynolds Marvin,
Expecting his wife
When ends her life,
And we both are freed from starvin.’
At Brightwell, Oron. On S. Rumbold, born February, 1582:
He lived one hundred and five,
Sanguine and strong;
A hundred to five,
You live not so long.
Dy’d March 4, 1687.
On a miser’s headstone:
Here lies one who for medicine would not give
A little gold, and so his life he lost;
I fancy now he’d wish again to live
Could he but guess how much his funeral cost.
From St. Philip’s Churchyard, Birmingham:
Here lies the body of Johnathan Stout
He fell in the water and never got out,
And still is supposed to be floating about.
Here lies one Box within another;
The one of wood
Was very good;
We cannot say so much for t’other.
At St. Albans:
Sacred to the memory of Miss Martha Gwynn,
Who was so very pure within,
She burst the outer shell of sin,
And hatched herself a cherubim.
Here lies the body of Ann Mann,
Who lived an old woman,
And died an old Mann.
On one Lady Molesworth, who died in a fire on May 6, 1763:
A peerless matron, pride of female life,
In every state, as widow, maid, or wife;
Who wedded, to threescore preserved her fame,
She lived a phoenix, and expired in flame.
Mrs. Ann Jennings.
Some have children, some have none;
Here lies the mother of twenty-one.
Is Phoebe Thorp’s.
On a photographer:
Here I lie, taken from life.
On a tailor:
Fate cuts the thread of life, as all men know,
And fate cut his, though he so well could sew.
It matters now how fine the web is spun,
‘Tis all unravelled when our course is run.
A wood-cutter at Ockham, Surrey:
The Lord saw good: I was lopping off wood,
And down fell from the tree;
I met with a check, and I broke my neck,
And so Death lopped off me.
On an architect:
Lie heavy on him, earth, for he
Laid many a heavy load on thee.
On another miser:
Here lies poor stingy Timmy Wyatt,
Who died at noon and saved a dinner by it.
It was a cough that carried him off,
It was a coffin they carried off in.
In Portland, Oregon:
Beneath this stone our baby lies,
It neither cries nor hollers,
It lived but one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.
At Kensington, New Hampshire:
Here lies Matthew Mudd,
Death did him no hurt;
When alive he was mud,
Now he’s nothing but dirt.
Here lies William Smith,
And what is somewhat rarish,
He was born, bred and
Hanged in this parish.
Our bodies are like shoes, which off we cast,
Physic their cobblers, and Death their last.
On a man named John Phillips:
Accidentally shot as a mark
Of affection by his brother.
My wife lies here,
All my tears cannot bring her back;
Therefore, I weep.
In Nova Scotia:
Here lies old twenty-five per cent.
The more he had, the more he lent.
The more he had the more he craved,
Great God, can this poor soul be saved.
In East Thompson, New York:
Here lies Jane Smith,
Wife of Thomas Smith, marble cutter
This monument was erected by her
Husband as a tribute to her memory
And a specimen of his work.
Monuments of this same style are
Two hundred and fifty dollars.