Epitaphs: Getting In The Last Word

Gravestone of my grandfather's sister. His mother died three weeks earlier due to complication of childbirth.

The gravestone of my grandfather, Charlie L. Claywell’s sister. His mother died three weeks earlier shortly after his sister was born.

As a family historian, I’ve spent a lot of time in graveyards. I been in small ones, large ones and a couple that were only accessible by foot. Inside these cemeteries a family’s cultural, political and religious leanings can often be deciphered through the symbols and phrases used on tombstones — although some customs, like tent graves, are open to speculation.

But in all of my family gravestones, the one thing I have never found are markers that offer some humor even though I come from a family with quite a few witty individuals. Instead, most of the inscriptions are similar to the one on my great-great-grandfather Richard Lewis’ stone which reads,

Having finished his course,
Now lies silently asleep

Although there is nothing wrong with this approach, witty epitaphs give us an insider’s look at the personality of the deceased.

Modern Tombstones

Tombstones have come a long way in the past two or three decades. With 3D-style printing, tombstones featuring everything from high resolution color photographs to modern graphics of the stairway to Heaven, these newly styled stones create an out-of-this-world brand for the deceased. It’s not a bad thing. Traditionally graveyards have served as a reminder of the joy, sorrow and temporal nature of life. Modern tombstones often enhance this experience by memorializing the deceased in a manner more consistent with the way in which they lived.

It’s been said by many that all you truly control on your gravestone is that dashed line between your date of birth and your date of death — but more and more people are capitalizing on the power of words to leave a message beyond the grave. And some of these people have found creative ways to leave behind an insight — or a smile — for those stopping by to visit.

Humorous Epitaphs

Although humorous gravestones have been around for a long time, from the much borrowed, “I Told You I Was Sick” to “Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go,” some are more personalized. Winston Churchill, who knew he was a handful in life, wanted his epitaph to reflect that reality. His gravestone says,

I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

Others, like American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, known for his wit and wisdom, could not resist playing off of his occupation on his tombstone. His reads,

The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents worn out, and stript of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for worms. Yet the work itself shall not lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more In a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by its Author

And although, Ezekial Aikle of Nova Scotia is unknown to the world, his wit shines through the ages. His stone says,

Here lies
Ezekial Aikle
Age 102
The Good Die Young

But one of the best for getting the final say has to go to this man who, even in death, seems quite bitter. His stone reads,

In 1958 a contest was held to find the meanest woman in the world. Alas I married both the winner and the runner up … But if either are buried in this lot beside me there is going to be a resurrection.

More For The Road

Plenty of funny or unusual epitaphs exist online. Here are a few lists:

Categories: Family History, Genealogy, Middle age

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