The epitaphs in New England’s graveyards tell many tales. Carved into the chiseled stone are stories of people who lived long rich lives and babies who breathed only hours; lives tragically cut short by accident or misfortune and lives that grew weary.
Such a one was Roswell Stowell who died Dec. 2, 1875, age 60, in Chesterfield, N.H. His epitaph reads,
Let no one stand behind my grave,
Now that I am called to rest,
Nor shed a tear that I am gone,
For what I need is rest.
Rest from the weary load of care,
Rest from the wearing pain:
For Death shall ever be to me
An everlasting gain.
I know the road was bright and fair
Or once it seemed to be.
But it has changed so much of late,
It has few charms for me.
Mary Fowler probably wouldn’t have appreciated her epitaph upon her death at age 24 in Milford, Conn.
Molly tho’ pleasant in her day
Was suddenly seized and went away
How soon she’s ripe, how soon she’s rotten
Laid in her grave and soon forgotten.
Capt. E. Griffin, 1767, Madison, Conn., lies under this verse on his tombstone:
The Boreas’ blasts and Boistrous waves
Have tost me too and fro
In spite of both, by God’s decree
I harbor here below.
While I do now At Anchor ride
With many of our Fleet
Yet once again I must set Sail
My Admiral Christ to meet.
Another ship captain, Augustus N. Littlefield, who died at 75 in 1878 in Newport, R.I., had something else to boast about. His tombstone reads,
An experienced and careful master
Mariner who never made a call upon
Underwriters for any loss.
Ephraim Wales Bull, who developed the Concord grape, received no rewards for his effort -- something his epitaph reflects:
Ephraim Wales Bull
The originator of the Concord Grape
Born in Boston March 4, 1806
Died in Concord September 26, 1895
He sowed, others reaped.
One epitaph in a Boston burying ground recounts the patriotic career of a Son of Liberty:
Here lies buried in a
Stone Grave 10 feet deep
Capt Daniel Malcom Mercht
Who departed this Life
October 23d 1769
Aged 44 Years.
A true son of Liberty
A Friend to the Publick
An Enemy to oppression
And one of the foremost
In opposing the Revenue Acts
This epitaph is an artifact of the baby boom that populated the colonies:
Here lies the body of Mrs. Mary wife
Of Dea. John Buel Esq. She died
Nov. 4 1768 AEtat. 90
Having had 13 children
410 Total. 336 survived her.
And in Duxbury, Mass, a gravestone reads:
Feb. 25, 1865
87 years, 11 mo.
The Chisel can’t help her any.
Score-settling epitaphs were not uncommon. In Boston, one gravestone reads:
Here lies ye body of
Mrs. Ammey Hunt wife of
Mr. Benjamin Hunt
Who died Nov. 26, 1769
Aged 40 years.
A sister of Sarah Lucas lieth here,
Whom I did love most Dear,
And now her Soul hath took its Flight
And bid her Spightful Foes good Night.
The many, many infants who died young sometimes inspired whimsical commentary:
Ezra Thayer Jackson died after 25 days in Plymouth, Mass., in 1783.
What did the Little hasty sojourner
Find so forbidding & disgustful in
Our upper World to occasion its
In Manchester, Vt., a stone marked the grave of three children who died in 1821, 1823 and 1824:
Here in the dust 3 babes we
Sleep by our Father here
our Mother Brothers
Sisters dear have left us
alone to moulder here.
This epitaph was reported in Lincoln, Maine:
Sacred to the Memory of Mr
Jared Bates who Died Aug. the 6th
His Widow aged 24 who mourns
as one who can be comforted lives
at 7 Elm street this village
and possesses every qualification for a good wife.
Before the American Revolution, epitaphs modeled after the medieval Edward the Black Prince's were common. They said, essentially, "I may be dead, but you will be too."
One such example is the tombstone of Daniel Noyes, who died in Newbury, Mass., on March 15, 1716 at the age of 42:
As you were, so was I
God did call and I did dy
Now Children all whos name is Noyes
Make Jesus Christ
Your only choyes.
Read more old New England epitaphs here.
With thanks to Over Their Dead Bodies, Yankee Epitaphs & History, by Thomas C. Mann & Janet Greene. This story was updated in 2019.