Massachusetts

Epitaphs Tell Tales in New England’s Graveyards

Inscribed in stone in hundreds of old New England graveyards are the sometimes sad, sometimes funny epitaphs describing how people lived and how they died.

The moss- and lichen-covered stones tell tales of shipwrecked sailors, elderly ministers, smallpox victims, women who died in childbirth and children who died in infancy.

Old Town Burying Ground, Sandwich, Mass.

Old Town Burying Ground, Sandwich, Mass.

Mariners' Epitaphs

In East Hampton, Conn., an epitaph tells the story of an 87-year-old seaman who died in 1883.

Landsmen or sailors
For a moment avast,
Poor Jack’s main topsail
Is laid to the mast,

The worms gnaw his timbers,
His vessel a wreck,
When the last whistle sounds
He’ll be up on deck.

A Cape Cod fisherman was remembered with a similar wit:

Capt. Thomas Coffin
Born Jan. 7, 1792  Died Jan. 10, 1842
He has finished catching cod,
And gone to meet his God.

How They Died

Some epitaphs focused on the manner of death, such as this on a tombstone in Kittery, Maine:

I was drowned, alas! In the deep, deep seases.
The blessed Lord does as he pleases.
But my Kittery friends did soon appear,
And laid my body right down here.

Rev. Bunker Day of Hinsdale, N.H., wrote an epitaph for Jonathan Tute, who was inoculated against smallpox but died from the disease:

Here lies cut down, like unripe fruit,epitaph gravestone
A son of Mr. Amos Tute.

To death he fell a helpless prey,
On April V and Twentieth Day,
In seventeen Hundred Seventy-Seven
Quitting this world, we hope, for heaven.

Behold the amazing alteration,
Effected by inoculation;
The means empowered his life to save,
Hurried him headlong to the grave.

Mrs. Elizabeth Swain must have inspired great respect in life. When she died at 52 on Oct. 7, 1810, a stonecutter chiseled a long remembrance on her tombstone:

In all the endearing relations of
Life, Her conduct was stamp'd with the
Majesty of moral principal which
Commands respect, and with the beauty
Of propriety conciliates esteem
Through her last long and painful
Sickness she evinced the Christian and
With a firm hope in the redemption
She calmly bade the world farewell.

The graves of many infants can be found in the old New England graveyards. Typical of the epitaphs for children is this one for 6-month-old Bezaleel Shaw in Old North Cemetery on Nantucket:

My life in infant Days was Spent
While to my parents I was lent
One smiling Look to them I gave
And then descended to the grave.

Indictment

The brother of a dead man in Pelham, Mass., brought charges against his widow – on his gravestone:

Warren Gibbs,
Died by arsenic poison
March 23, 1860  Aged 36 years
5 months and 23 days
Think my friends when this you see
How my wife has dealt by me
She in some oysters did prepare
Some poison for my lot and share
Then of the same I did partake
And nature yielded to its fate
Before she my wife became
Mary Felton was her name.

Erected by his brother
Wm Gibbs

Mary Felton Gibbs was never charged.

A Connecticut man’s children had this epitaph carved on their father’s gravestone:

Our father lies beneath the sod,
His spirit’s gone unto his God;
We never more shall hear his tread,
Nor see the wen upon his head.

If your last name was Pease, your epitaph might have been similar to the one for Ezekiel Pease, found in a Nantucket cemetery:

Pease is not here,
Only his pod
He shelled out his Peas
And went to his God

Edwin Valentine Mitchell tells us the following well-known New England epitaphs may be apocryphal:

Here lies the body of Saphronia Proctor,
Who had a cold, but wouldn’t doctor.
She couldn’t stay, she had to go,
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

And this one:

Beneath this little mound of clay
Lies Captain Ephraim Daniels,
Who chose the dangerous month of May
To change his winter flannels.

Read more entertaining epitaphs here.

With thanks to It’s an Old New England Custom by Edwin Valentine Mitchell. This story about New England epitaphs was updated in 2018. 

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Matthew Barnes

    Matthew Barnes

    August 23, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Out of curiosity, which burial ground is this one pictured?

  2. Jonathan McCredy

    Jonathan McCredy

    August 23, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Wow, that’s interesting!

  3. Art Wilkinson

    Art Wilkinson

    August 23, 2014 at 9:42 am

    I liked this one I saw in Deerfield, MA: come hither mortal cast an eye then go thy way prepare to die and read thy doom for die thou must one day like me return to dust

  4. Francie Foley

    Francie Foley

    August 23, 2014 at 10:12 am

    So interesting

  5. Margaret Dragon

    Margaret Dragon

    August 23, 2014 at 10:53 am

    A favorite pass time when driving around W.Mass. is to stop at really old graveyards and read the gravestones…some are very funny

  6. Bob Gibeault

    Bob Gibeault

    August 23, 2014 at 11:09 am

    There is a grave in the old cemetery across from the Woodcock Garrison house which holds Ceasar. He was a plane maker in the 1700’s. Eventually he gained his freedom from slavery. When he died he was buried in a grave that read “Here lies the noblest of slaves. Ceasar the Ethiopian, now turning into dust, craves a place among the just. His soul has fled to the realms of heavenly light and by the blood of Jesus Christ has changed from black to white.” I think the date says 1796.

  7. New England Historical Society

    New England Historical Society

    August 23, 2014 at 11:11 am

    The picture is of a cemetery in Sandwich, Mass. Down the street from town hall.

  8. Alison Herman Schooley

    Alison Herman Schooley

    August 23, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Very cool

  9. Deborah Osborn

    Deborah Osborn

    August 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Very interesting I enjoyed reading them.

  10. Bill Jones

    Bill Jones

    August 23, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    One of my favorites, found in Fitzwilliam, NH
    “This stone marks the grave of doctor Peter Clark Grosvenor, whose ancestry was respectable, whose intellectual & active powers were strong, whose education was liberal, whose increasing usefullness endeared his life to the world, and whose early death opened incurable wounds in the breasts of his relations and friends. . . 1794.”

  11. Bill Carlson

    Bill Carlson

    August 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Nancy Mudge Charter Street Burying Point Salem Ma.

    • Dani

      May 8, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      I have been to Salem five times and each time I go I pay my respects to Nancy’s grave. Her epitaph is the loveliest I’ve ever read.

  12. Bonny Gibbs

    Bonny Gibbs

    August 23, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    There’s a woman buried here who’s name is Thankful Bliss. What kind of fucking curse is that???

  13. Kelly-Lynn Chasse

    Kelly-Lynn Chasse

    August 24, 2014 at 11:24 am

    There is a lot of information on stone symbolism and classes as well. I did a lot of research on it when I wrote a walking tour for our towns historical cemetary. It is all fascinating.

  14. Julianne Daigle Dandy

    Julianne Daigle Dandy

    August 24, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Love old cemeteries!

  15. Michelle Hubenschmidt

    Michelle Hubenschmidt

    August 24, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Old Wethersfield and Old Windsor cemeteries in CT are favorites

  16. Theresa Uminga

    Theresa Uminga

    August 24, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    Jared Paul Kraus

  17. Pingback: Seven Strange Facts About Colonial Funerals - New England Historical Society

  18. Gordon Harris

    July 30, 2015 at 6:56 am

    Take a virtual tour of the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich at http://mementomoriipswich.org/

  19. Keith Stokes

    July 30, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Great story. There are also many markers of 18th century African heritage people across New England including the largest collection in Newport, Rhode Island at http://www.colonialcemetery.com/

  20. Keith Stokes

    July 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    Great story. There are also many markers across New England of 18th century African heritage persons with the largest collection in Newport, Rhode Island.

  21. Pingback: Frederick Law Olmsted Plans A Cemetery or a Hundred - New England Historical Society

  22. Pingback: The Greatest Submarine Rescue Ever: Saving the Squalus - New England Historical Society

  23. Pingback: Andrew Wyeth’s First Date With Christina Olson and Her World - New England Historical Society

  24. Pingback: How To Be A Good Puritan Mother - New England Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top