Speaking Graves

by Glenn Conjurske

Wherever we go in this sin-cursed world we meet with graves—-not only a grave or two here and there, but hundreds of them, large fields filled with them. And those who ponder a little must be impressed with the fact that for every grave which we see there must be hundreds of “graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them” (Luke 11:44)—-for almost all of the graves which we see are of recent origin. If a stone were to mark the mouldering dust of every man who ever lived, we must be almost overrun with graves.

Now these graves are accustomed to speak. Their message is, “Here is the end of every man. You who are now in health and strength will shortly lie here. Death is coming. You cannot escape it. All of the portion which you now enjoy on the earth will shortly be snatched away from you. Your plans and ambitions will perish. Your soul will fly—-where?”

All of this the graves speak by their very existence. The sight of a cemetery by the roadside cries out with this message. But those who step within its gates and walk among the graves will often find the same message engraved in the very stones. Our forefathers were accustomed to engrave solemn messages on their tombstones, an excellent practice which has long since fallen into disuse. But the old stones in the old cemeteries still stand, and, by means of these stones, those whose dust decays beneath them, being dead, yet speak. At various times through the years I have walked in old cemeteries, reading the inscriptions on the stones—-often using all my ingenuity to make out precious messages nearly obliterated by the ravages of time. Besides being a very interesting study of human nature—-and human nature ought to be the constant study of every servant of God—-this is a solemn experience, and to a saint of God may be a very blessed one. But I have little reason to expect that the most of human beings will ever engage in such an employment, and it has therefore occurred to me to write down many of those inscriptions, to be able to present them to those who will never read them otherwise. For that purpose I have recently visited a few old cemeteries, all in the state of Massachusetts, and filled many notebook pages with inscriptions. I here present a number of them to my readers. I only remark first that I present them exactly as I found them, though the poetry is sometimes poor, the grammar wrong, and the spelling bad, or, in some cases, obsolete. The only alteration I venture to make is in the addition of necessary punctuation, which is often missing on the stones. This I do because it has often been impossible to tell if the missing marks, small as they are, were missing from the original engraving, or obliterated by time. I have not, however, changed punctuation which was present, though it is sometimes wrong.

The last inscription copied in my perambulations is worthy of the first place in this article. It comes from the grave of a girl who died in her third year, in 1796:

Life is uncertain,
Death is sure;
Sin is the wound,
And Christ the cure.

Numerous inscriptions contain precious statements of faith in God and the resurrection, while many others contain warnings to the living of the shortness and uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. Others are personal messages, often full of pathos. I give a few the latter sort first.

A touching personal message comes from the grave of a seventy-nine-year-old woman, who died in 1824:

Afflections sore long time I bore,
Physicians skill was vain,
Till God was pleas’d to give me ease,
And free me from my pain.

Telling the same sort of tale is a brown sandstone marker over the grave of a man who died at the age of 80, in 1819:

Our age to seventy years is set,
How short the time, how frail the state,
And if to eighty we arrive,
We rather sigh & groan than live.

On an unusually large white sandstone marker, over the grave of a young wife, who died in 1805 at the age of twenty-nine, we read,

Swift in succession,
Deaths cold hand
My dwelling dose invade;
My former wounds
Was sorely, scarcely heal’d
Before anothers made.

I found no clue from any of the graves around who it was that was snatched from his dwelling before her, whether wife, or child, or some other, but what a picture this grave gives us of this sorrowful scene of death through which we are passing! The same is enforced again in a nearby family plot in the same cemetery, where we find two small brown sandstone markers over the graves of two sisters, who each died in the second year of life. In 1812 died the first, at the age of 1 year, 6 months, and 26 days. Her gravestone is inscribed,

Transient & vain is every hope
A rising race can give.

Her sister died in 1819, at the age of 1 year and 95 days, and her stone is inscribed,

But death came like a wintry day
And cut the pretty flow’r away.

The same is enforced again in another cemetery, where four little children of the same family lie buried in close proximity. The first was a son who died at the age of five in 1814. His stone reads,

Too dear, too fair, for mortals here,
His Saviour called him home,
Here we are left to shed a tear,
And mourn his early doom.

This is an inscription, by the way, which I found on the tombstones of numerous children. The second child, a babe of four months, died in the following year, and his stone is marked,

Sleep, sleep, sweet babe, & take thy rest,
God called the home, he thought it best.

The last of the three black slate markers covers the grave of two infant daughters, who died on the 17th and 19th of March, 1819, at the age of eleven weeks. It is inscribed,

Happy the babes who privileg’d by fate
To shorter labour & a lighter weight,
Received but yesterday the gift of breath,
Order’d tomorrow to return to death.

Many of the personal inscriptions consist of strong expressions of faith. Some of these were no doubt written by surviving friends or relatives rather than the deceased, and alas, no doubt many of them are no more than wishful thinking, for there are no atheists in death. These expressions of faith are so common, so nearly universal in the old grave-yards, that simple folks might be ready to suppose that the whole world must have been Christian in those days. Thus Spurgeon asks, “Where do they bury the bad people? Right and left in our churchyard, they seem all to have been the best of folks, a regular nest of saints; and some of them so precious good, it is no wonder they died—-they were too fine to live in such a wicked world as this.” Indeed, some of these inscriptions express no more than wishful thinking, and others may be no more than hypocrisy. On this Lorenzo Dow says, “Most people wish the public to believe that their friends, if they live like devils incarnate, very wicked and immoral, and even ashamed of religion, and become persecutors of it here, yet when they are dead, posthumous fame must declare they were very pious, and the best of Christians, and are gone straight to heaven, to the abode of the blessed! Is not this exemplified to our minds, if we walk into the church-yard and view those epitaphs on their tomb-stones, composed by their friends?” Others, however, have the ring of truth about them. Such as they are I give them. From the stone of a woman who died in 1814 at the age of 48:

My flesh shall slumber in the ground,
Till the last trumpets joyful sound,
Then burst the chains with sweet surprise,
And in my Saviours image rise.

This excellent piece graces the graves of many in various places. I found it used in a very touching way on two black slate stones, side by side, over the graves of a young husband and wife. He died August 11, l822, aged 23. She followed him to the grave less than a month later, on September 7, at the age of 20. His stone in inscribed,

My flesh shall slumber in the ground
Till the last trumpet’ joyfull sound,

ending with a comma, just as I have given it. Upon her stone we read,

Then burst the chains with sweet surprise
And in my Saviour’s image rise.

A sixty-three-year-old woman, who died in 1818, tells us,

God, my Redeemer, lives,
And often from the skies
Looks down, & watches all my dust
Till he shall bid it rise.

A deacon who died in 1810, at the age of 80, says,

O thou great author of life & death,
Thy call I follow to the land unknown;
I trust in thee, & know in whom I trust.

Near by, a man who died in the following year, aged 70, tells us,

All our ambitions
Death defeats, but one,
And that it crowns.

He speaks, no doubt, of the ambition to see Christ, or to depart and be with him. And on a brown sandstone marker over the grave of a woman who died in 1787 in her 55th year,

Why should we tremble to convey
Their bodies to the tomb?
There the dear flesh of Jesus lay
And left a long perfume.

In 1800 a young man died, aged 21 years. His tombstone is inscribed,

Father I give my spirit up
And trust it in thy hand.
My dieing flesh must rest in hope,
And rise at thy command.

A man of 88 years, with the title of “Reverend,” died in 1830. The black slate slab which marks his grave in inscribed,

Lord I commit my soul to thee,
Accept the sacred trust;
Receive this nobler part of me,
And watch my sleeping dust.

A woman of 87, who died in 1812, yet speaks also, and says,

Death is a sweet sonorous sound,
To those who have salvation found.
It wafts them to the courts of bliss,
Where all is joy and happiness.

A man who died in 1819, at the age of 36, yet speaks also. His brown sandstone slab is inscribed,

The holy triumphs of my soul
Shall death itself out-brave,
Leave dull mortality behind,
And fly beyond the grave.

It is probably the survivors who speak in the next instance, and we hope their hope was as good as their expression of it. The man died in 1863 at the age of 81, and the white sandstone slab which marks his grave reads,

There is a world above
Where parting is unknown,
A long eternity of love
Formed for the good alone,
And faith, beholds the dying here
Translated to that glorious sphere.

These expressions of faith and hope are precious, but there is another class of inscriptions which speak more forcefully. These are they which warn the living to lay the inescapable fact of death to heart. Such are numerous, and many of them most excellent. A woman who died at 82 in 1814 says,

Life how short. Eternity how long.

If a woman who lived eighty-two years must thus solemnly testify to the shortness of life, how ought the rest of us to lay it to heart, for as the grave of a boy who died five years later at the age of 16 solemnly declares,

Death enters and theres no defence.

And a woman who lies near them both, who died at 75 between their deaths, in 1816, thus lifts up her voice to speak to the living,

Whilst living men my grave do view,
Remember here is room for you.

A man who died at the age of 19, in 1822, has been speaking for nearly two centuries, and saying,

Death is a debt to nature due,
Which I have paid, and so must you.

And another who died in 1763 at the age of 63 has spoken for well over two centuries, enforcing the message which all of these graves declare by their very existence:

Thus shall our Mouldring Members teach
What now our senses learn,
For dust and ashes Loudest Preach
Man’s Infinite Concern.

And a young wife who departed this life in her twenty-fifth year, in 1811, declares,

How soon the thread of life is spun:
A breath, a gasp, a diing groan.
Alarming thought, upon the strings
Of life hangs everlasting things.

A man of 75 years who died in 1827 admonishes,

Are you in health, so once was I,
Pray think of me as you pass by,
As I am now so you must be,
Prepare for death, & follow me.

The same I have seen elsewhere with numerous variations. On the grave of a man of 81 who died in 1800,

Behold, my friend, as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I,
As I am now soon you must be,
Prepare for death and follow me.

And hear I rest my weary head
Till Christ my Lord shall raise the dead.

One stone gives the following homely admonition concerning the uncertainty of life:

to the memory of Capt.

C—-—-—-—-—-—- C—-—-—-—-—-—--,

who was suddenly kil’d
by being thrown from
a waggon, Oct. 24, 1815
aged 61.
Make ev’ry day a critic on the past,
And live each hour as if it were your last.

This man’s wife had died but half a year before him, and lies beside him. Her gravestone testifies,

Thrice happy Christian! who, when time is o’er
Enters the realms of bliss, to die no more.

A large brown sandstone slab near by marks the grave of a man who died at 39, in 1817. He pleads with those who visit his resting place,

Go not away till you have made
Thy God thy friend, the grave thy bed,
Then chearful you may come again
And sleep with me among the dead.

And a man who died in 1814 at the age of 21 pleads,

The grave is now my home,
But soon I hope to rise;
Mortals behold my tomb;
Keep death before your eyes.

An admonition of another sort comes from the grave of a man who died at 54 in 1799, and though we wonder at a skilled engraver so illiterate as to put “affirs” for “affairs” and “trimble” for “tremble,” the advice might be well taken.

Mortals be dumb, what creture dare
Dispute his awfull will,
Ask no account of his affirs,
But trimble and be still.

D. L. Moody speaks of listening to the tolling of the funeral bell when he was a boy, once for every year of the age of the deceased. It was a solemn thing to hear the bell toll out his own young age. I was reminded of this while copying the following solemn appeal from the grave of a man who died in 1800 at the age of 46, which is my own age:

Ye living mortals, view the ground
Where soon your clay must lie,
Nor leave this spot till you have found
That you must shortly die.

One of the very best admonitions, for both form and substance, which I have found, comes from a black slate marker over the grave of a young wife who died in 1809, aged 28. It reads,

Mortals attend, for you must die,
And sleep in dust as well as I.
Repent in time your souls to save.
There’s no repentance in the grave.

Beside this eloquent preacher lies her husband, who, however, had other things to think about when death took him, for he died six years after her, at the age of 36, apparently leaving their dear children orphans. To them and to his God he appeals from his grave:

Farewell my Children whom I love,
Your better Parent is above,
When I am gone he may supply,
To him I leave you when I die.

Very near these lies the body of another eloquent preacher, who died in 1826, aged 79. From the gray marble which marks his grave comes the solemn appeal,

O if you knew as much as I,
You quickly would prepare to die.

I trust I have not wearied the living with these walks among the dead. Nay, I trust I have profited them. “The living know that they shall die” (Eccl. 9:5), but how little do we lay it to heart, until the summons comes. And though I hope to end my earthly career in the air, and not in the ground, yet if the Lord delays his coming, death will summon us all. Let us all lay to heart the solemn admonitions of them who being dead yet speak, and we shall be ready.

Glenn Conjurske