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Poetry from Headstones

Not so Grave Matters: the witty, the scabrous, the profane, the ribald and the downright insulting


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A sense of humour is not usually a required part of the repertory for a scribe composing verse for a headstone. While an ability to laugh at the foibles of the living is a near prerequisite for staying sane, there is an unwritten rule that renders the dead beyond the pale when it comes to mirth.

 

Death often disarms critics; the deceased, no matter how obnoxious or curmudgeonly when alive, suddenly becomes a paragon of every earthly virtue, a being of exemplary morals, and a person to be admired and emulated.

 

However, caustic crypt writers do, on occasion, baulk at this convention with some irreverent tombstone testimonials. Locally, there is precious little evidence of humour being used on a gravestone; the following verse on the headstone of a certain Young who died in 1776, being as close as we are likely to get;

 

Here lies interred beneath this stone
The Commodore who oft times shone
In cracking jokes with many a guest
And chanting songs in merry taste
Punctual and just in all his dealings
Yet said himself he had his failings
Bad qualities if he had any
Were very few, his good ones many.
His heart and hand were always ready
To serve the poor and help the needy
Had gratitude in high perfection
And died in hopes of resurrection
Dundonald Graveyard, County Down

 

A politician is probably as ripe a candidate as anyone for a less than fulsome funereal tribute. The following withering rejoinder was written by no less a personage than Lord Byron. His subject was Lord Castlereagh, whose ancestral home at Mount Stewart is now a beautifully managed National Trust property. Castlereagh was British Foreign Secretary and played a leading role at the Congress of Vienna where a post-Napoleonic order was imposed upon Europe. He committed suicide following a bout of depression, but even this tragic end did not stay Byronís irreverent hand. As rhyming raspberries go, this one is hard to beat:

 

Posterity will ne'er survey
a nobler grave than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh
Stop, traveller, and piss.

 

We end this survey of headstone poetry with a dose of disrespectful dirges. Death is no laughing matter but then again:

 

Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid
But died an old Mann.
Dec. 8, 1767
In a London cemetery

 

Here lies
Johnny Yeast
Pardon me
For not rising.
In Ruidoso cemetery, New Mexico,

 

Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.
Memory of an accident in a Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery

 

Here lays Butch,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw.
In a Silver City, Nevada, cemetery

 

Reader if cash thou art
In want of any
Dig 4 feet deep
And thou wilt find a Penny.
John Penny's epitaph in the Wimborne, England, cemetery

 

On the 22nd of June
Jonathan Fiddle -
Went out of tune.
In a cemetery in Hartscombe, England

 

Here lies one Wood
Enclosed in wood
One Wood
Within another.
The outer wood
Is very good:
We cannot praise
The other.
In Memory of Beza Wood Departed this life
Nov. 2, 1837 Aged 45 yrs.

 

Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there's only the pod:
Pease shelled out and went to God
On a grave from the 1880's in Nantucket, Massachusetts

 

Tom Smith is dead, and here he lies,
Nobody laughs and nobody cries;
Where his soul's gone, or how it fares,
Nobody knows, and nobody cares.
In Newbury, England [1742]

 

Beneath this stone, in hopes of Zion,
Doth lie the landlord of the Lion;
His son keeps on the business still,
Resigned unto the heavenly will.
On an innkeeper 1875

 

And in conclusion Ö

 

Whatever oneís political persuasion, one has to acknowledge that death does have a tendency to accentuate the egalitarian aspects of existence. Grandiose mausoleums, capacious vaults, elaborate sculptures, hagiographical encomiums; all may try to elevate one dead individual over another, but mortality undercuts this vainglory and reasserts the truth that we are all poor players fretting and strutting our hour upon the stage.

 

As this poem on a Devon tombstone makes clear, itís not the state of your grave but the state of your soul that counts in the final reckoning:

 

Here lie I by the chancel door;
They put me here because I was poor.
The further in, the more you pay,
But here I lie as snug as they.

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