"The Last Laugh, Graveyard Epitaphs"
June 2007 Meeting Report
Guest Speaker - Jean Townsend
The June meeting of The Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in The Centenary Lounge, Keyworth on Friday, 1st June 2007. A well-attended meeting were entertained by a presentation from Jean Townsend entitled “The Last Laugh; Graveyard Epitaphs”. Jean is no stranger to the society having given us an excellent presentation in April 2006, which was both entertaining and informative, on “The Medieval Woman”. Jean began her presentation by explaining that her particular passion was disease, death and burials in England during the 14th & 15th centuries. One spin-off from this interest has resulted in Jean acquiring a large collection of epitaphs from around the country, some sad & poignant, some serious, and some highly amusing. It was this last category that we were entertained with this evening.
Jean began her talk with a preamble with a passionate criticism of the way that red tape and interfering officialdom has crept into the world of graveyard epitaphs on headstones and monuments. There appears to have been a marked creep towards this unwanted bureaucracy over the last twenty years or so. The result has been that graveyards now, in Jean’s opinion, are becoming uniform, sterile and uninteresting. There is no variety either of layout or individuality that is expressed in the style of monuments or the wording that is on them.
A particular case that Jean illustrated was that of a Boston, Lincolnshire lady who wished to have the word “Dad” inscribed on her late husband’s gravestone. “Dad” was epithet that the lady’s late husband had been referred to for years so it was only natural that that was the name that she wished to be inscribed on the headstone. No such luck! This was felt by the church authorities to be inappropriate. “Pater”, “Papa”, or “Father” were all acceptable but “Dad” was not. The situation was ludicrous but the relevant authorities would not move on the issue and the upshot was that the lady in question had to have her husband’s body exhumed, at considerable personal expense, and moved to a burial plot four miles away where there was no such petty constraint. Unfortunately, this sort of petty bureaucracy that seems to be invading more and more aspects of our personal lives has now found its pernicious way into such trivial situations as to whether “Dad” can or cannot be used in a church graveyard. This case, unfortunately, is not an isolated one and there were others which Jean quoted, all guaranteed to raise the proverbial hackles on Jean’s back.
Had such petty officialdom held sway in the past then the amazingly rich diversity of graveyard art that we are now blessed with would never have come into existence. The audience were then entertained with a rich selection of epitaphs from the collection that Jean has amassed over the years. The following is a small sample from those that Jean amused us with.
The first came from a gravestone in a churchyard on the Isle of Skye and was inscribed; “Under This Sod Lies Another”. From what Jean had told us previously there is no way that this particular inscription could ever be used today, more’s the pity! A more recent epitaph was found on a tiny gravestone in an old churchyard in Chelsea, London. On the gravestone were beautiful carvings of a knife, fork, spoon, champagne glass etc for Guiseppe, Head Waiter at The Savoy inscribed with the words “The Lord caught his eye at last”. Another was found at Epperstone, North Notts, and was to an atheist named Judith Myers who died on 15 November 1870. The simple inscription “All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go”.
A gravestone that was erected in Llanelli by a husband to his wife had the following verse inscribed on it;
This spot is the sweetest I’ve seen in my life,
It raises my flowers and covers my wife.
A gentleman of the name Owen Moores died leaving behind massive debts which his unfortunate widow was quite ignorant of, as was the stonemason who made his tombstone. When the mason discovered that he would not be receiving payment for his work he placed the following inscription on the stone;
Owen Moores has gone away,
Owing more than he can pay.
John Strange was a lawyer in County Durham, the simple inscription on his stone reads;
“Here lies an honest lawyer, that is strange”
John Brown was a dentist who lived in Glasgow, his epitaph reads;
Stranger tread this ground with gravity,
John Brown is filling his last cavity.
Then there was a lady who lived in Epsom and took herself and her two daughters off to Cheltenham to “take the waters” for the benefit of their health. Unfortunately the waters were notoriously unhealthy and the poor lady and her daughters all died as a result of using the so-called health cure;
Here I lie with my two daughters,
Killed by drinking Cheltenham ‘ waters.
If I’s stuck to Epsom Salts,
We wouldn’t lie in these cold vaults.
Then there is the epitaph to the man who went looking for a gas leak with a lighted candle:
He was blown upwards, out of sight,
For he sought the light by candlelight.
Or the poor young boy who choked to death when a fishbone lodged in his throat;
David got a fishbone in his throat,
It made him sing an Angel’s note.
Or a father from Malton in Yorkshire;
Here lies the father of 29,
It would have been more but I didn’t have time.
Or the epitaph to John Yeast;
Here lies John Yeast,
Pardon me for not rising.
Or to a lady named Maria who must have been something of an unpleasant character if her epitaph is anything to go by;
We’re safe in saying she’s gone up higher,
Not even the Devil wants Maria.
Or the headmistress of a girls’ grammar school in Doncaster who died in the 1920’s. She had asked for the inscription “She was Thine”. Unfortunately the e was omitted from Thine with the result that the inscription read “She was Thin”. Naturally someone had to be blamed for this mistake and the poor apprentice carried the can. He was told to go and put the missing “E” on the gravestone. This he duly did, and being a Yorkshireman he put the “E” at the beginning of the inscription with the result that the stone epitaph then read; “E, She was Thin”. That stone couldn’t be changed so a new one was carved with the correct inscription placed upon it. There was a strange twist to this unlikely but true tale. The original stone was discovered in a garage in Baltimore, USA. Apparently, for some bizarre reason, the stone is bequeathed to the second son of a family member of the late headmistress’s family.
Some stones are inscribed with words that are inadvertently ambivalent, such an example being;
In loving memory of Mary Foster,
Who’s left us in peace.
Then there is the simple inscription carved on a stone; Is That It.
Jean provided many more examples, to numerous to write here, needless to say, the audience were highly amused and entertained. What might have been a sombre and reflective evening actually turned out to be one long laugh. Well done Jean, we look forward to seeing you again in the future with another highly original, entertaining and informative presentation.