Epitaphs, according to Websters Dictionary, are "inscriptions on a gravestone, in memory of a deceased person." 1 They are prominent parts of any cemetery. Charles Wallis suggests that: "the common grave slab probably originated as an effort to safe guard a new grave from wild beasts. Names and dates were inscribed for purposes of identification. An epitaph. . . later made one stone distinctive from another." 2 They may be used to convey feelings of grief, sadness, or happiness and hope. Peter Melendy wrote, "The cemetery is our last earthly home, small is the possession? A few feet of ground is all we can claim of earth." 3 What is said on ones last earthly home can tell us a lot about the people, their families, and the time they lived in. Often epitaphs try to encapsulate a persons life in one phrase.
Epitaphs can tell us a lot about the people themselves and their family relationships. Many, such as a pair in the Original Section, Block K, simply say "Father" or "Mother." Others tell us a little more, such as the children or siblings they had. Many tombstones in Greenwood simply read "Father," "Mother," or childrens names. This was true of both older and recent tombstones. This pattern has continued over time.
Some epitaphs are written in foreign languages. In the First Addition members of the Nielsen family's epitaphs are in Danish. Another stone in Block 1, Second Section reads "Ruhe Samft," which is German. These tombstones are those of immigrants who settled in the area. Most of the stones with epitaphs in foreign languages are older ones from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when many immigrants were entering the United States.
Epitaphs also tell us a lot about the people left behind. Through epitaphs they show their grief, hope, and sometimes even happy memories. A recent stone in St. Bernards section, reads: "Loving you Mick, has made my life richer." In Block 1, Second Section, a tombstone belonging to Maggie Smith, who died in 1905, reads: "Darling daughter how we miss you, none but God alone can tell, but in heaven we will meet you, until then, farewell." Elizabeth Smiths stone bears the same epitaph only saying "Dear Mother" instead of daughter.
The dates on the stone can tell when a person was born or died, but an epitaph can give a more personal story. This is especially true of childrens epitaphs. They are often very emotional and more personal. The tombstone of a little girl buried in the St. Bernard west section reads: "Memories linger of a little angel, Heaven sent, who brightened our lives, but for a brief fleeting moment."
Many epitaphs bear religious or Biblical quotations. In Block 5, Second Addition,the epitaph of the Messerly family, dated 1895, reads: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness." This verse is from 2 Timothy 4:7. This is also the epitaph of famous evangelist Billy Sunday. Many epitaphs also refer to peoples religious beliefs. In Greenwood Cemetery these are all Christian, many with verses from the Bible. Some of the more common verses were: "His mercy endured forever. Psalm 107:1" (Block 2) and "In my Fathers house are many mansions. John 14:2."(Block 2) These verses all deal with heaven and life after death.
Epitaphs may reflect lot about the times during which the people lived. For example, the older epitaphs tend to be more religious, or else very simple. Many older stones had no epitaph. Society back then was more religious and very conservative. People did not express their feelings as openly as they do now. Nigel Rees, in his book Epitaphs, states, "Victorian epitaphs are mostly pompous or dull." 4 Instead, they used religion and verses to express their emotions. This was true of many epitaphs from the Victorian era. Many simply say "Rest in Peace" or "In Loving Memory."
Today, there are fewer Biblical verses. The more recent epitaphs tend to have more personal feeling and emotion. One of the more lengthy modern epitaphs dating from the 1990s is on a stone in the Saint Bernard, west section. It reads: "The gates were opened and a hand reached out for me, I hesitated, but was not afraid. So much would be left behind, friends, family, my son so young with so much life to touch. . . And a chorus sang, say no good-bys, what you have given can never be lost, guide with your love for you will always be near. And I believed. With love from your brother." This is also the longest epitaph in Greenwood Cemetery.
The most curious epitaph found in the cemetery is that of a late World War II veteran buried in the Saint Bernards east section, whose plaque simply reads, "Keep Em Guessing."
In the epitaphs in Greenwood Cemetery there is both change and continuity. Some simple epitaphs commonly used today are similar to those found one hundred years ago. They simply say "Mother," "Father," or "Rest in Peace." More Bible verses are found on the older stones particularly those of the 1800s and early 1900s. The more recent epitaphs tend to be more personal and less religious. By looking at epitaphs one can learn something about the person, their families, and the time period in which they lived.
1. Websters II New Riverside Dictionary. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,1984.), 235.
2. Wallis, Charles L. Stories on Stone: A Book of American Epitaphs. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.), 17.
3. Melendy, Peter. Historical Record of Cedar Falls. 1893. (Reproduced, Evansville, Ind., Unigraphic, Inc. 1974.), 76.
4. Rees, Nigel. Epitaphs. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1994.), vi.
Melendy, Peter. Historical Record of Cedar Falls. 1893. Reproduced, Unigraphic, Inc. Evansville, Ind., 1974.
Rees, Nigel. Epitaphs. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1994.
Wallis, Charles L. Stories on Stone: A Book of American Epitaphs. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1954.
Websters II New Riverside Dictionary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
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