Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What's your epitaph?

My name is Alice. I'm a history buff and I love old graveyards. And, no, I'm not entering a twelve step program, because I've no desire to change my habit.

The history found in a cemetery is priceless and immediate. When I was a little girl, I remember visiting an overgrown graveyard with my mother. The folk buried there were pioneers to the area, but for some reason the cemetery had not been provided with a means to maintain it. Many stones were leaning, covered in moss, smothered in weeds and nearly illegible. But we were able to trace the date of a typhoid epidemic that hit the area by the number of deaths with similar dates. I got an early lesson in compassion as my mother shed a tear and placed some flowers on a stone that marked the grave of an unknown mother and her day-old infant, buried together.

As I grew older, I made a habit of including a visit to old graveyards when I travelled. Some stones are small and crumbling, impossible to read, other's are polished and deeply etched, and some are amazing. Here's a picture I took at the Old Cemetery in Halifax. The monument is to a young man who died at Sebastopol, duing the Crimean War, 1853-1856, a conflict that took place on the other side of the world from Halifax, before the country of Canada existed. What motivated him to go to that far-off war? Patriotic zeal? A broken heart? Desire for adventure? And what motivated his family to raise such a magnificent monument to one man?

Then there are the epitaphs. There is a tombstone in Kirkland Lake, Ontario that reads "victim of fast women and slow horses." Or how about one, dating from 1891 in British Columbia, "Shot in the back by a dirty rat."
Here's a more recent one. Mr. Monro has "gone fishing". While Mr. McTavish's friends will "miss his radiant personality.

Canada is a land of immigrants. For some, like the example at the top of this page, the title "pioneer" held pride of place, while for others, especially those from the British Isles, the most important aspect of their lives, the one thing that had to be remembered, was the place of their birth.

There are also the memorials that indicate the most important thing about a woman was her husband, his dates, his birthplace, etc. I have even read a stone where the poor woman was never given her own name!


Near where I live is a small church founded by former slaves from the USA. Is the epitaph "forever be free" a coincidence?

I found this marker there too. In the world wars Canada's dead were not returned to their native soil. Rather, they were buried on far away battlefields. I can only imagine the grief of the family that wanted a marker that they could visit.
In our modern age, more and more people are foregoing a grave marker altogether, content to leave their names in a book of remembrance, or, as the poet said "some there be which have no memorial; who are perished as though they had never been."
I hope gravestones don't disappear. Where else can we catch a glimpse of the rich tapestry of human nature, from the profound to the quirky, the sad to the joyful?
So, what's your epitaph?
I'd love it if you left a comment and shared some memorable gravestones from your part of the world.
Alice Valdal hangs out at Come on over and visit.


  1. Alice, interesting post! Thanks for sharing your passion for history and what can be learned by reading memorials.

  2. Well I'm thoroughly traumatised by cemeteries but I agree they do serve an historical purpose.

    I have to laugh, too as my early childhood was marked by 'death' in that my uncle was a gravedigger,my bedroom/playroom backed onto an undertaker's yard (and I can still see in my mind's eye the stacks of newly made coffins waiting there). I used to play in the local churchyard and around the war memorial.

    I recall having shoebox 'funerals' for my dolls and making 'graves' for our pet dog (just the top which I'd cover with buttercups and daisies and no, I never buried the dog!).

    I'd love to be able to send you some pictures of the memorial of my great uncle Edwin, who was killed one month before the end of the Great War near Arras on the Belgian border. It's in a small Canadian cemetery in Vis-en-Artois, about 2 hours from Paris. If you let me know how, I'll let you have them. Email?


  3. Ann, I'd love to see the photos. You could send them to me at avaldal @ shaw dot ca Of course, there are no spaces in the actual address.

  4. Alice, one of my favorite cemeteries is Ross Bay in Victoria. I've got quite a few photos from that one! And my romance novel has several scenes set in Ross Bay Cemetery as well.

  5. There's a monument near here marking the mass grave of victims of a prairie fire that wiped out Hinkley, Minnesota. Those who escaped went through the flames on a burning train. That bit of local history sends shivers down my spine.

  6. Valer, romance in the Ross Bay Cemetery? Now that does fire the imagination

    LeAnne, I've read tales of prairie fires and they filled me with horror, imagining the advancing fire rushing at me, with no means of escape. I think your train story would make a great starting point for a novel.

  7. I'm afraid the number of tombstones--and people willing to break away from standard prose--is dwindling, don't you think?

    An interesting post! thanks

  8. I think you're right, Debra, more's the pity :) My parents' stone includes the date of their marriage and the inscription "the greatest of these is love"

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  10. at age 53, am quite curious to know what mine will read. this is especially true now that i have written my life's story contained within three books. already the first one, which chronicles the first 24 years of my life has generated a great deal of controversy. it is entitled Euclid Avenue Our scars mean something. the first chapter can be seen at additional excerpts can be viewed in the photo album on facebook-R Keith Rytaran. thanks.

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