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Tombstone in graveyard

The Poetry of Death: The Remarkable Language of the Epitaph


Graves around the world share more poetry than might be imagined.

Death has its own language. This is true in terms of aesthetics (in a funerary visual culture), and in terms of linguistics. Beyond the obvious information inscribed on tombs —names, years of birth and death— epitaphs also offer brief, unexpected bursts of information about the lives of people who no longer exist, messages of which the owner of the grave, generally, has played no role. As sources, they’re opaque and also a little studied linguistic form.

A professor of religious studies at Harvard University, Elise Ciregna explains that although inscriptions on tombs have existed since humankind could carve stone, in the cases of European and North American funereal culture, it was during the 17th century that epitaphs began to draw upon poetry, biblical quotes, and to provide descriptions of the lives of the deceased. This information gives linguists and researchers from other disciplines clues about the lives of those buried in a grave and about the societies in which they lived.

One of the most important characteristics of epitaphs (one also easily overlooked) is that they’re made for the living, for those who remain in this world. They’re a way of honoring, remembering, and reaffirming the deceased’s belonging in a group, a family, a religion, or within a moral system. Thus, among other things, they’re sources for invaluable historical and social information. In the same way, the language used in inscriptions (in cases where dates are not indicated) also point out the time in which the inscription was made and, therefore, the historical context of the person resting there.

For example, with most of the inscriptions found on 17th and 18th century North American graves, the language comes from a Calvinist culture. It’s a language characterized by direct and indecorous messages. “Here lyeth the body of Elisabeth the wife of William Pabodie who dyed May ye 31st 1717 and in the 94th year of her age.” In such an epitaph, one notices not only the sobriety so characteristic of Protestant discourse, but also the fact that in this epoch women were defined by their relationships with men. Such small groupings of words “lady of …”, “consort of …”, or “widow of …” also give information about the gender relations existing specifically in that time and place.

The 19th century, Ciregna argues, brought with it more elaborate and ornate epitaphs. There was an evident change in tone and epitaphs became less dark and more inclined towards celebration, something like “She is not dead, but sleepeth.” Experts attribute such changes to the transformations undergone by Calvinism towards a less somber Protestantism. We see then that a short phrase inscribed in stone is capable of giving much more information than at first is apparent.

Other elements, like hidden messages, may speak of the dead in a language which leans toward the symbolic and the metaphorical. Sheaves of wheat, on North American tombs, generally indicated that the deceased had been a wealthy businessman. A column or broken tree branch mean that the deceased had died prematurely. Lastly, and despite the fact that they’re now related to piracy, skulls and crossbones were simply a memento mori in its most classic style: a reminder that death will touch all of us someday. The graves of African-American people from this era often contained messages reflecting the racist ideology of the time, with claims that a deceased person, despite having been “black” in life, might now approach the white community through a true religion.

Especially in the 19th century, the roles of stonemasons and carvers held a tremendous importance for epitaphs and their language. Often, they were the people to propose the messages on graves, whether in poems, biblical passages, or in similar texts. The story of one stonemason, Alpheus Cary, is known even today. In life, he wrote a book on epitaphs and their conventions including fragments of the Bible suitable for use on tombstones, quotes from poems by famous writers, and even poems he wrote himself.

Experts dedicated to funereal linguistics (few and eccentric though they are) find in the brief passages on tombs —in their articles, verb tenses, adjectives, and nouns— an impressive quantity of information about the cultures which created them. These include values and religious beliefs, and clear, firm messages on belonging within a specific human community. We can see then that, in general, cemeteries (and the messages on graves therein) are intended to be understood by locals, and not by outsiders.

Funerary linguistics —the language of these epitaphs— results in a material words that provides more information about who lies in these graves than we might see at first. Brief messages carved in stone tell stories which, like ghosts, may be blurry: they appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, but tell the stories of those who once walked the earth.

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