Cemetery Epitaphs

“See, I told you I was sick.”

VICKSBURG — That’s the last line on a tombstone in Vicksburg’s Cedar Hill Cemetery and, though the one who penned it lies beneath the sod, he still brings a smile to the living.

Beneath that monument is a story — though the epitaph carved in stone seldom gives even a hint of the accomplishments or character of the one buried there. Most simple ones state names and dates, while older ones sometimes tell the place of birth, especially if they were Irish and proud of it.

Some epitaphs are sad, some humorous and some have a message. But, most are as dull as the dirt that covers the caskets.
At Cedar Hill Cemetery are some prime examples of all the above categories. I especially like the one — quite lengthy — that extolls the man’s fine virtues, tells of his educational background and family heritage, his achievements in public life and concluded upon his death in 1835 that he was “lamented by all who valued Human excellence.” And, at the bottom is an engraving showing that the marker was erected by his two friends.

The monuments over soldiers’ graves often tell of their roles and patriotic deeds in various wars. James H. Walsh, a Confederate soldier in Swett’s Battery, was described as “A brave soldier, a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend.” Marmaduke Shannon II almost made it through the war, only to die April 6, 1865 “in the last struggle for Southern independence.”
Some stones tell about one’s life’s work — or lack of it. A man who obviously had a good time in life was memorialized with the words “Adverse to the plow, prone to the fiddle and jug.”

The words “To be a nurse is to walk with God” are inscribed on Bobbie Burt’s tombstone, and others tell of various roles in life, such as being a locomotive engineer.

Tom Wince of Vicksburg wrote his own epitaph, and he wasn’t shy about how he wanted to be remembered. The inscription reads “An Internationally Known Night Club owner who established and operated the famous Blue Room Night Club from 1937-1972.”
Carl White McRaven’s actions in saving someone from a burning building, only to be a victim himself, is why the following words are on his Cedar Hill tombstone: “Gave his life that another might live.”

Being a newspaper editor in Vicksburg in the 1800s was sometimes a dangerous job. James Hagan and John Jenkins are examples. Hagan died in 1843; Jenkins, five years later, also the poorer shot in a duel. They are beside one another, Hagan’s epitaph telling of his purity of heart, of his “incorruptible integrity as the conductor of a Public Press.” On Jenkins’ stone are words, “He died as bravely as he had ever lived,” and also spoke of his “unsurpassed ability, fearlessness and fidelity.”

When Elizabeth Murphy died in 1904 at age 53, the marker placed at her grave bears this poem:

“Warm summer sun
Shine kindly here
Warm Southern wind
Blow softly here
Green sod above
Lie light, lie light
Good night, dear Heart
Good night, Good night.”

The simple inscription on the tombstone of Louis Hoffman tells more about the character of one of his three wives than it does about him. “Our husband” is carved on his stone and on each side are identical stones with “My Wife” engraved in the marble. His third wife was buried on top of his casket.

When Mary E. Smith died in Vicksburg in 1878, her final words were carved on her stone: “See that my grave is kept green.”
Sometimes there are warnings on tombstones, such as the one on the grave of Dr. Solomon Phillips, who was buried in 1830 on his plantation south of Vicksburg: “Stranger, Beware! I left my native home. I found no better, but I found a tomb.”

My great-grandfather, Reuben Rainey Morgan, has an oft-used admonition over his grave in Pike County, Alabama: “As you pass by so once was I. As I am now, you soon will be. Be prepared to follow me.” There’s a variation of this message on a modern stone at Cedar Hill, and there’s a reply, in rhyme, which I’ve forgotten, but it is to this point: I’ll not follow you until I find out which way you went!

I’ve seen two cartoons of tombstones that I think are great: “Ha! Ha!” (he got the last laugh) and “He died of dyslexia — he kept dialing 119.” But, there is one at Cedar Hill that reads, “Paid my own way in life and death, including this tombstone” and another has the stoical observation, “I thought it would end this way.”

It isn’t just the epitaphs that make old cemeteries, especially those with moss-draped trees and fancy iron fences, my favorite haunts, but it is also some of the beautiful sculptures. There are roses and angels and crosses, weeping willows and seashells, doves and anchors and little lambs.

There are some that make the deceased look so natural! At Cedar Hill is the life-size statue of Grace Lawrence Martin and her little girl, also named Grace, carved of Carra marble in Italy. In the Utica City Cemetery, there is Frost John Kelly, all dressed up, everything down to the finest detail, such as the watch fob, carved in marble. In Crystal Springs, there is the man and his dog, also in marble, also life-size.

Among my favorite tombstones is one in the graveyard at the Episcopal church in Prairieville, Alabama, just the other side of Demopolis. The 10-foot-tall obelisk is for Mrs. Mourning S. Bocock who allegedly was married three times — once for love, once for money and once for fame. The bottom line of her marker sums it up: “She Hath Done What She Could.”

So what do I want on mine? Major W.E. Palmer, buried in the Printer’s lot in the early 1900s in Vicksburg, was memorialized as “A philosopher, scholar and printer.” I was a printer, I like to philosophize (I can spell it but have trouble saying it), but too many friends would dispute the scholar line. So, I’ve come up with the following, which my tombstone marker has minus the expiration date:

By the Grace of God
Gordon A. Cotton
was a Southerner
and a Primitive Baptist

“Don’t blame me.
I voted for Ron Paul.”

 

Photos by Melanie Thortis / © The ‘Sip

About the author

Gordon Cotton

Gordon, a Vicksburg resident, is a historian, an author, a storyteller and a former curator of the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College. He has taught high school history and was a newspaper reporter and columnist for many years. Gordon has written and published numerous books on local history and culture.

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