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Poetry from Headstones

Verses for Spouses


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To judge by the inscriptions on local graveyards, Ulster has always been a haven of domestic harmony and a paradise of married bliss. The infidelities of husbands, the shrewishness of wives, the marital peccadilloes that blight connubial contentment, appear to go unrecorded. As with most obituaries, the merits of the respective spouses are emphasised, their less attractive characteristics lie buried with their owners. Some seem too good to be true:

 

A filial son, a husband true and kind
A calm adviser & instant friend
By justice guided wealth he sought to find
That wealth when found he usefully might spread
Since he loved to teach & to receive
Excels he shun’d but sought the social ring
Worth he prized in beggar or in slave
And spurn’d deceit tho in a priest or king
He strove for truth when truth he thought he scann’d
He branded error while he felt her rod
Yet by kind acts he reverenced his God
Here lies William Logan, died 16th April 1797 aged 29 years
Templecorran graveyard, County Antrim

 

Other nationalities are not so circumspect in detailing the inadequacies of their partners. The English occasionally take a more prosaic view, replacing the panegyric with more pointed poetry. The views tend to emanate from a misogynistic perspective; the distaff side of the coupling rarely resorting to such dismissive couplets:

 

The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna.
In Ribbesford cemetery, England

Here lies my wife,
Here lies she;
Hallelujah!
Hallelujee!
In a Leeds graveyard [1861]

 

Even the great English poets were not immune from washing their dirty linen in public. John Dryden (1631 – 1700) had the following backhanded eulogy for his wife:

 

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she's at rest, and so am I.

 

The following epitaph serves as a female counterweight to the black graveyard propaganda illustrated above:

 

Here lies a poor woman who was always tired;
She lived in a house where help was not hired.
Her last words on earth were: "Dear friends, I am going
Where washing ain't done, nor sweeping, nor sewing:
But everything there is exact to my wishes;
For where they don't eat there's no washing of dishes...
Don't mourn for me now; don't mourn for me never -
I'm going to do nothing for ever and ever.
The Tired Woman's Epitaph

 

Ulster couples tend to eschew grand sentiments, concentrating upon the minutiae of married life and the pain engendered by the sudden sundering of a relationship meant to last a lifetime.

 

The churchyard bears an added stone,
The fireside shows a vacant chair,
Here sadness dwells and weeps alone,
And death displays his banners there,
The life has gone, the breath has fled,
And what has been no more shall be,
The well known form, the welcome tread
Oh! Where are they and where is she.
Holmes memorial in Raloo graveyard Co Antrim 1838 to his wife Agnes who died aged 33

 

"a light is from our household gone
a voice we loved is stilled
a place is vacant in our house
which never can be filled"
Erected by Jane Grabbe, in loving memory of her husband Thomas Grabbe, who died 8th February 1897, aged 64 years, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Glenarm, County Antrim

 

The form we used to see
Was but the raiment
That she used to wear.
The grave that now doth press
Upon that cast off dress,
Is but her wardrobe locked
She is not there
William Strain 1885 for his wife Mary, Balmoral Cemetery, Belfast

 

Here are two poems that take the not uncommon step of putting words into the deceased’s mouth, clearly offering some crumbs of future comfort to the bereaved; the hope that they may be reconciled one day:

 

Cease my young beloved wife
To sigh above my tomb;
We yet shall meet in land divine
Where death can never come.
Prepare to follow me and join
My sure eternal home.
Erected by Margaret Arthurs for her husband Hugh Mecagherty who died aged 26 1839, Ballypriormore graveyard, Co Antrim

 

Fairwell, my husband, and my children dear,
Shed not for me one single tear,
You plainly saw my glass was run,
For all that was or could be done,
With you I must no longer stay,
But in my prime I’m called away.
Adair grave, 1811, Bangor Abbey, County Down

 

Inscriptions are often used to blow the trumpet of the departed and copper fasten his reputation as firmly as the coffin encases his corpse. But rarely can it have been used as a prototypical dating agency or advertising billboard. Life must go on indeed.

 

Sacred to the memory of
My husband John Barnes
Who died January 3, 1803
His comely young widow, aged 23, has
Many qualifications of a good wife, and
Yearns to be comforted
An epitaph in a Vermont cemetery

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