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When Writers Write "The End."

 

Creative writers have been around for a long time, before Gutenberg and after the printing press rolled out the first page of text. And some of the most creative writing was accomplished with hammer, chisel, and stone.

No book. No magazine. No newspaper. No billboard by the side of the highway. No Burma Shave signs. Just a headstone and a cemetery. The short story of a person’s life or his lasting philosophy often took only a few words to say. And when the writers wrote, “The End,” those final words were final and forever.

It was in a cemetery beneath the shade of giant oaks and behind a wonderful old church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where I first discovered that some of America’s greatest prose and poetry have been chiseled on the faded face of a weathered tombstone. A woman had written:

 

 

            View this tomb as you pass by,

            For as you are, so once was I.

            And as I am, so you must be.

            Prepare yourself to follow me.

That was beginning. As the years kept passing, I found myself, from time to time, spending more time in rural graveyards, collecting the final words that some poor soul had left behind to provide at least some faint glimpse of a life whose history, so often, had been simply reduced to a name and two dates: birth and death.

A Williamsburg, Virginia, gentleman obviously wanted to be remembered by the obvious good times that had come his way even for a few years:

             Aged 71 years but lived but 7 years

            Which was the space of time he kept

            A bachelor’s house at Arlington

            On the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

One elderly lady in Southern Alabama, no doubt the worn-down, worn-out product of hard circumstances and hard times, wrote these last, fateful words about a new world where days of hard work around the house would be unknown and forgotten.

            Dear friends, I am going

            Where washing ain’t wanted.

            Nor sweeping nor sewing;

            And everything there is exact to my wishes.

            For where folks don’t eat,

            There’s no washing dishes.

            In Heaven, loud anthems forever are ringing.

            But having no voice

            I’ll keep clear of singing.

            Don’t mourn me now, don’t mourn we never.

            I’m going to do nothing forever and ever.

Some may have been the victims of gossip and rumors in life, but death offered a chance at long last to escape a worthless or tainted past and begin anew. As one North Carolina woman inscribed:

Reader, pass on, nor waste your time

            On bad biography and bitter rhyme.

            For what I am, this cumbrous clay insures,

            And what I was is no affair of yours.

On the other hand, one man’s marker said with pride:

           He done his derndest.

And, perhaps, nothing better can be said of any of us.

The cattle trails of the late 1860s were marked with the dusty graves of cowboys whose lives had been short ones. Hard. Unforgiving. And short. On the headstone of one, alongside the Goodnight Loving Trail that cut through West Texas and into New Mexico, a man’s final episode of life was cut into stone:

             Here lies the body of Jeems Hambrick

            Who was accidentally shot

            On the banks of the Pacus River

            By a young man.

            He was accidentally shot with one of the large

            Colt’s revolvers with no stopper for

            The cock to rest on.

            It was one of the old fashioned kind

            Brass mounted and of such is the kingdom

            Of Heaven.

In Culver City, truth was truth. It wasn’t discolored.

He called

           Bill Smith

           A liar. 

On a woman’s grave in Colorado Springs. She had married a Texan who was buried in Texas.

I would

              rather be here

              than in Texas.

Above the grave of a cowboy hanged.

Here lies Rab McBeth

           who died for the want

           of another breath.

Final words had never been so final.

  • Christina Carson

    We had a very old Quaker cemetery where I lived as a child. The Quaker Meeting House was still in use, just not the horse rails in front. I visited often when life and I were at odds. There were memorial markers to Andrew Jackson and Washington. I’d roam the graves fascinated by the epitaphs. So cemeteries became places for me that were not about death but about roots and peace.

  • Jijimccut

    Love this story. Reminds me of a dog cemetery I visited once somewhere in the South. Lots of praise for coon hounds.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_J2QISWSNGEQZPA4HUZ3IUIY3D4 Jack

    A famous radio evangelist ranted one night on the subject of epitaphs. It spoke of visiting an old graveyard in New England and wandering among the burial sites reading biblical passages culled from the King James Version. Nary a one from any of those “other” bibles. He pronounced “other” with disdain. Of course, he neglected the irony of the fact that all of the burials predated the publication of those “other” bibles.

  • Newbury

    First epitaph has rejoinder from passerby: “To follow you, I’m not content; Until I know which way you went!”

  • Caleb Pirtle

    JiJi: Funny you should mention that. Here is the link to my blog on the Coon Dog Cemetery near Tuscumbia, Alabama. http://venturegalleries.com/blog/a-good-word-for-a-good-dog/

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Christina: I, like you, spend a lot of time roaming old cemeteries. Those stories on tombstones, told in a half dozen words, only make me wish that I knew the whole stories and the stories behind the stories. Now we’ve lost them all.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Great story, Jack. I guess funerals held with “those other Bibles” probably won’t count come judgment day.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Don: The one thing graves don’t have is a road sign pointing out the direction where the party in question traveled.

  • http://twitter.com/SoniaGMedeiros Sonia G Medeiros

    Fantastic! I’ve never really read old tombstones. I’ll be on the lookout now.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Sonia: You’ll find some great literature carved on the face of old gravestones. Once you start wondering the old cemeteries, you’ll never stop.

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