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Unusual Gravestone Inscriptions (by ordinary people)

  • #1
    Posts: 0 [Deleted User]


    Since gravestone inscriptions are probably a resource that a lot of people employ, when conducting family research, I'm interested in what kind of unusual gravestone inscriptions you've come across? I am not really interested in the epitaphs of high-profile people "I told you I was ill", etc"), which is why I thought this forum might be preferable to the main History Forum.

    Analysing unusual inscriptions can tell us something about the lives of ordinary people whose stories are usually eradicated from history.

    There's a derelict Church of Ireland graveyard near our farm, where Catholics were buried in penal times, with graves dating from the 1700's. I'm interested in one inscription by a widow, who by all evidence was a modest/ labouring family.

    “Here lies lamented in this silent grave
    A tender husband and a parent brave
    Pale King of Terrors how couldst thou destroy
    The widows hope and her childrens joy”.

    This isn't an original verse -- I've seen it once elsewhere. But still, it isn't what you'd expect from a poor widow in 1819.

    I wonder what the "pale king of terror" is, Death? Hardly God. It seems unusual, to me, to see a reference that refers to death with such anguish, contrasted with the dominant christian notion of death as redemption, or triumph.

    This is just an example to highlight the many questions that can spring from an unusual grave inscription.

    Any others?


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Comments



  • One thing is certain - she was not a poor widow. Working class and lower middleclass families, particularly those in rural areas did not place gravestones and if they did they were simple grave markers and did not have elaborate inscriptions.




  • I just googled that verse - it appears in more than one country on headstones, mostly late 18th century.

    You can infer several things from it:
    English-speaker
    Literate (and beyond the basic level)
    Had enough money to erect a headstone - very much not the norm for Catholics in 1819.
    I would say almost certainly Protestant.

    Genealogy Forum Mod





  • Before the last century, the vast majority of people could not afford a gravestone. Even in the 20th century, many people didn't have any.
    Only yesterday, I was in Glasnevin, seeking the grave of a pioneering journalist who died in Ireland in 1954, having returned from a career in America. Her death was mentioned in the New York Times but her grave is unmarked.

    Another problem when a monument is present, is that it was often erected many years after the deaths occurred, by people who did not know the correct details, and so the inscription can be misleading.

    However gravestones are fascinating and should be used more.

    Old genealogists never die, they just hang around in graveyards.




  • Just ruminating further, but would say that headstones are a resource I've hardly ever employed in both researching my own ancestry and my professional career. Often we just have no idea where people are buried. We may get to a stage where we have all the extant headstones in the country surveyed by volunteers but it'll probably never be centralised in an easily-searched database.

    I've got lucky with speculative searches for my Dublin ancestors in Glasnevin and Deansgrange.

    Genealogy Forum Mod





  • I have found that the majority of people do not have gravestones and that, even when present, gravestones often contain errors. As Tabbey said, gravestones often contain errors due to the info provided, also true of death certs for that matter. I have also found they contain outright lies, as do obits. I have a great-great grandmother, born Meath, died in a nursing home far from her Brooklyn home. But the family wrote in obits that she died at home with her loving family gathered round. And that's what all the Ancestry trees say. I tracked the correct info down thru a one-word note on the cemetery's record.

    Another error I have encountered is when a name is put on a gravestone before death, such as when a spouse dies. Both names are put on the stone. Then the surviving spouse moves to a family member's home far away and eventually dies there but the body is never returned to the grave with the name.

    That said, gravestones can provide valuable clues if documented with accurate supporting records.


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  • I found a gravestone in a small cemetery on an old estate in Co Westmeath, near where my ancestors lived.

    Sacred/ to/ The memory of/ [my 2x great grandfather's brother]/ who departed this Life/ 31st July 1849. aged 52 years/ Also his Son [...],/ who departed this life 28th Oct. 1853, aged 21 years./ And his Mother [...]/ who departed this Life/ 24th Feb. 1862. aged 82 years/ also [First name with married name]/ sister to the above / who departed this Life/ 2nd May 1867 aged 57 years.

    This gave me precious information on my 3x great grandmother, her approximate date of birth, although not her maiden name. I met a local farmer whose family had taken over the land in the 1930s - he was in the process of restoring the cemetery and had found the headstone lying on the ground, which had preserved the carving. My 2xgreat grandfather was a farmer and his brother who was buried in the cemetery was a coachman on the big estate, which may explain why he managed to have a finely carved headstone for himself.




  • I've always been fascinated by graveyards and cemeteries. However, it's true that the gravestones don't always tell the whole story. I discovered an uncle I never knew I had. He wasn't mentioned on the family gravestone but he was in the cemetery records as having been buried in the family grave.




  • I've got some documented ancestors marked with a stone in an old graveyard. There's an older horizontal slab on the same grave with the same surname but if they are related there's a missing generation or two so I can't connect them but I'd love to know if they are the same family since the older slab dates to the mid 1700s.




  • I've got some documented ancestors marked with a stone in an old graveyard. There's an older horizontal slab on the same grave with the same surname but if they are related there's a missing generation or two so I can't connect them but I'd love to know if they are the same family since the older slab dates to the mid 1700s.

    Where the older stone is same Surname, same or adjacent grave, it can be taken that its the same family, beyond all reasonable doubt.




  • Mick Tator wrote: »
    One thing is certain - she was not a poor widow. Working class and lower middleclass families, particularly those in rural areas did not place gravestones and if they did they were simple grave markers and did not have elaborate inscriptions.
    Ah yeah, I'm sure this widow wasn't among the very poorest in the village.

    But I come from a small cluster of villages, so I know the Catholic family who are traced to this plot of graves -- they're buried in 3 adjecent graves as recently the 1980s. I don't think they owned anything more extensive than 50 acres, from penal times to the 20th century. Using the small Catholic parish register, I have verified that they were, at that time, Catholic.

    I suppose the widow wasn't poor, but she was young during the penal laws and prior to national education -- you wouldn't necessarily expect her to be literate, let alone interested in verse. I'm fascinated by that.

    What I'm trying to say is it really challenged my preconception that the penal laws deprived small farmers among the catholic population of education, especially women; and that they slavishly followed religious teaching, where death was the jurisdiction of God (not "the pale king of terror"). Clearly the widow disagreed. I like her.

    I've seen a few more interesting gravestones in local graveyards, I'll try to find them again. I'd be grateful if anyone could post something else of curiosity. Our history books are littered with what may be false presumptions about the people at that time.

    They left almost no written records, except for their gravestones.


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  • A few comments –
    I've found gravestones to be of huge help both in genealogy and historical research. The earliest ‘marker’ in my paternal line is for an ancestor born 1720. Some family members in between have no headstone. For those who have, all are simple. My grandfather was nine when his father died and very much later erected a headstone for him and included three generations which goes back to the 1700’s. He was wrong by a year on the date of death of his father. Perhaps the stone with the verse was erected later.
    …………... I don't think they owned anything more extensive than 50 acres, from penal times to the 20th century…………I suppose the widow wasn't poor, but she was young during the penal laws and prior to national education -- you wouldn't necessarily expect her to be literate, let alone interested in verse. I'm fascinated by that.

    What I'm trying to say is it really challenged my preconception that the penal laws deprived small farmers among the catholic population of education……..
    You have encapsulated your issue there. If the family ‘owned’ 50 acres they were well-off (if it was good land). What do you mean by ‘the Penal Laws’? Most people have an incorrect understanding of them and what they involved. Their primary aim was to break the power of the Irish nobility/upper class Catholics and they largely left the ordinary mass of people untouched. The laws were on the Irish statute book to give a sense of power and security to the ruling Protestant minority and enforcement depended more on political rather than religious considerations. Also, education was available for Catholics. What minimised access to it for the ‘underclass’ was not the law but was a twofold reason -economics (cost & lost potential income) and perceived need (most rural jobs did not require reading/writing skills).Although the sons of wealthy families had to go abroad to the Irish Colleges for 3rd level, TCD admitted Catholics from the 1790's (it was the RC Church that prevented them from attending, (and people my age had to get a special dispensation from the bishop to attend!)

    The Penal Laws were hijacked by the Nationalist cause post-Famine, misinterpreted for use as propaganda and as a result a huge amount of misperception and disinformation about them lingers on to today.




  • tabbey wrote: »
    Where the older stone is same Surname, same or adjacent grave, it can be taken that its the same family, beyond all reasonable doubt.

    That's promising. Do you have any tips on filling in the gap between the generations on both stones? The gap would cover late 1700s to mid 1800s - not the easiest time period to research admittedly. I'm guessing having a stone in the 1700s would have meant the family had a bit of influence.




  • . Do you have any tips on filling in the gap between the generations on both stones?

    Not really, you can only hope to find some evidence in other sources, such as the registry of deeds, which is closed like the other repositories, due to the misinterpretation of covid risks and precautions.




  • That's promising. Do you have any tips on filling in the gap between the generations on both stones? The gap would cover late 1700s to mid 1800s - not the easiest time period to research admittedly. I'm guessing having a stone in the 1700s would have meant the family had a bit of influence.


    The parish records, if properly kept, may help. In my own research I've found the RC records difficult to read, and early CoI records very difficult to track down (some years missing).




  • There's one in Newcastle church in Wicklow from - I think - around 1800 that says "What you are, I once was. What I am, you will become" or some equivalent close wording. It's an old phrase - goes back to the Romans apparently - but I think it does fit the bill of an unusual gravestone inscription. Gives you a weird connection with the person as you read it too.




  • Mick Tator wrote: »

    You have encapsulated your issue there. If the family ‘owned’ 50 acres they were well-off (if it was good land). What do you mean by ‘the Penal Laws’? Most people have an incorrect understanding of them and what they involved. Their primary aim was to break the power of the Irish nobility/upper class Catholics and they largely left the ordinary mass of people untouched. The laws were on the Irish statute book to give a sense of power and security to the ruling Protestant minority and enforcement depended more on political rather than religious considerations. Also, education was available for Catholics.

    Thank you, this post was quite enlightening.

    From memory, but I'd need to check the record, I'm pretty sure the widow was renting 50 acres (45 acres, if memory serves) in the mid-19th century. They were not destitute, but it seems to me that they weren't rich. I highly doubt they had anything to do with the celtic nobility.

    Do you know how available was education to young catholic women of modest backgrounds, during the 18th century? Is it not strange that girls would be able to read, or appreciate verse?

    I would have thought there was no particular education available, except for girls intending to become catholic nuns.

    I noticed this gravestone because it's the only one of its type. Every other 18th/19th century gravestone in the Catholic section is just a list of names and dates.




  • The parish records, if properly kept, may help.

    I had assumed that the op had already studied these. But if not, then yes of course start with parish records followed by Griffith's valuation and tithe applotments.




  • tabbey wrote: »
    I had assumed that the op had already studied these. But if not, then yes of course start with parish records followed by Griffith's valuation and tithe applotments.
    Yeah I looked up the catholic parish records. Luckily it's a very small parish, so this widow was easily found. I didn't find her marriage, which probably took place in the late 1700's, but found one baptism.




  • Thank you, this post was quite enlightening.

    From memory, but I'd need to check the record, I'm pretty sure the widow was renting 50 acres (45 acres, if memory serves) in the mid-19th century. They were not destitute, but it seems to me that they weren't rich. I highly doubt they had anything to do with the celtic nobility.

    Do you know how available was education to young catholic women of modest backgrounds, during the 18th century? Is it not strange that girls would be able to read, or appreciate verse?

    I would have thought there was no particular education available, except for girls intending to become catholic nuns.

    I noticed this gravestone because it's the only one of its type. Every other 18th/19th century gravestone in the Catholic section is just a list of names and dates.
    You don’t know the date when the gravestone was erected– it could be a later addition, for e.g. put there by the widow’s son long after her death when he had acquired some wealth. Don't get hung up on it.

    Education in the 1700’s for the average Irish person was closely linked to the practice of their religion. The Catholic bishops were fully aware of this and provided dozens of books – sermons, catechisms and pious works for use by travelling preachers (many were published in Irish) thus education was brought closer to the teachings of the Catholic Church. (In the 1800's the RCC deliberately screwed up a good system because they did not control it.) In the late 1600’s Jesuits were operating schools in Munster and a couple of decades later a survey carried out at parish level shows that there was one priest for every 1,700 parishioners, whereas today the figure is one for every 2,500. So much for the Penal Laws!

    Similar to other European countries, the vast majority of Irish country-dwellers had no education. There was no perceived need for a labourer or small farmer to read or write, and conditions were such that almost all children did not attend school for long – if at all – due to cost and a need to work to contribute to the family unit. The position was worse for females. Even looking at birth and marriage records in the 1860’s many females signed ‘her mark’ whereas a smaller number of males did so.

    The continuing strength of Irish Catholicism led to a Lords’ Committee that in1731 produced a “Report on the State of Popery” in Ireland. It did not cover the whole of the country (large parts of Munster were not covered – and it showed that there was a total of 892 Mass-houses, more than 100 huts/sheds/moveable altars, and 549 ‘Popish schools’.

    Catholic schools were forbidden under the Penal laws. However, in operation those laws targeted religious education by the religious orders, rather than education itself. Education took place openly in ‘hedge schools’, so called due to their rural nature rather than being held outdoors, although a few were rudimentary sod-built cabins. Although these schools were illegal, no hedge-school teachers are known to have been prosecuted. Many of the teachers were mendicant scholars, often clerical students or ‘failed priests’. Any family with a few pence to spare could afford education. The subjects taught usually were reading, writing and arithmetic, pupils paying per subject, sometimes in the form of turf or lodgings for their teacher. The ‘Visitation Books’ (journal records of bishops who travelled around) often mentioned who was teaching and where. Sons and daughters of one of my ancestors are recorded in one (Bishop Butler’s, 1750’s) as pupils of a clerical student. That family was ‘comfortable but not particularly well-off. So yes, some girls were educated but it was by no means the norm, it depended on family wealth, location and interest. I’m not aware of any special induction program run for nuns – there was an entry hierarchy, where the daughters of rich(er) farmers brought their dowries with them for the convent and were ‘professed’ whereas the poorer girls, usually uneducated, were treated as skivvies and often did not progress.

    “The Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Ireland”, founded in 1811 was known as the Kildare Place Society,after its address in Kildare Place, Dublin probably was the first of what we would today recognise as a type of ‘’national school’. Even then that did not bring education to the masses.

    (MOds - more H&H than genealogy? move if you want to.




  • Mick Tator wrote: »
    (MOds - more H&H than genealogy? move if you want to.

    No - no need to move it - the two go hand in hand and compliment each other.


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  • I love this newish headstone in Kilnaboy cemetery, Co. Clare.
    Have been here many times as half my family are buried here.


    https://www.flickr.com/photos/harve64/3741425221/

    (Not my photo! Or my relation.)




  • I found two more unusual local ones. Once again, it strikes me as unusual that death is not viewed from the typical christian standpoint as being redemptory or glorious, as in the Christian tradition. Death, again, is release from misery, and the person who has died is presented as being acrimonious against life itself.

    Terryglass (Old Church of Ireland graveyards), Co. Tipperary
    Erected by Peter Hogan
    in memory of his son
    Denis Hogan who depd
    this life May 24th 1807
    aged 11 yrs
    Beloved by all by all caressed
    Too good to live and dead is blessed


    And this one
    Erected by Denis Hogan in
    memory of his affectionate son
    Thomas Hogan who departed this
    life Sept 18th 1803 aged 18 yrs

    Farewell vain world I know enough of thee
    And now am careless what thou sayest of me
    Thy smiles I count not nor thy frouns hear
    My cares are past my head lies quiet here
    I am gone awhile before a debt to pay
    Pray God prepare you all for that great day



    In the latter case, what happened to the son? I've asked around, and I've searched the records, and nobody can trace him. The epitaph is so melancholy.

    Nobody by his name was ever a big land-holder in our area, this guy wasn't rich.
    What fascinates me about him is that he wasn't rich, was probably from a repressed religion (catholic), he was probably poorly-educated, and yet he commissioned such a moving tribute to his son.




  • Mick Tator wrote: »
    What do you mean by ‘the Penal Laws’? Most people have an incorrect understanding of them and what they involved. Their primary aim was to break the power of the Irish nobility/upper class Catholics and they largely left the ordinary mass of people untouched.
    Whilst I agree with your description of the basic premises of the aims of the Penal Laws, surely you do accept their trickle-down effect on the economic and educational consequences for ordinary catholics? These people had next-to-no education, and yet even their women could read and write... or appreciate poetry.

    I have checked the records, and double-checked them. The people I am quoting are not local lords, they are minor farmers. Otherwise, they would have left land-based records.

    All I'm saying is that for all their lack of education, these simple men and women sometimes left pretty remarkable gravestone inscriptions. They weren't well educated, but they were intelligent.




  • Farewell vain world... versions of this inscription occurs in other cemeteries - here are a few from England. I think what we are looking at here is the work of stonemasons and monumental sculptors who would suggest appropriate wordings to clients, rather than individuals composing verses:

    St Paul's: https://registers.trinitywallstreet.org/churchyard/stpaul/history.php?id=467#here

    Holy Trinity Cuckfield:https://www.flickr.com/photos/churchyardtraveller/2885615128/

    Blewbery: http://www.blewbury.co.uk/blhg/places%20of%20worship.html
    Edward Chidwell died November 10th 1901 aged 88: Farewell vain world I know enough of thee/And now am careless what thou say'st of me/Thy smiles I court not nor thy frowns I fear/My cares are past, my head lies quiet here./What faults you've known in me take care to shun/and look at home enough there's to be done.

    Some scholars have studied the work of headstone carvers - they often had a distinctive style of decoration, and probably wording as well https://www.jstor.org/stable/30001662

    Another interesting article about headstones: https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/headstone-symbols/




  • Excellent point from KildareFan.

    Genealogy Forum Mod





  • Whilst I agree with your description of the basic premises of the aims of the Penal Laws, surely you do accept their trickle-down effect on the economic and educational consequences for ordinary catholics?
    I never doubted that. When any law is applied there always will be a trickle-down / knock-on effect. That is the basis of Newton's third law – ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Introduce an act for road safety, on-sales in bars will decrease but off-sales will increase. The key factors affecting education 1600 – 1830 in Ireland were economic, not the religious Penal Laws. In practice the anti-Catholic laws that affected the bulk of the population were not enforced by the mid 1700’s. Various acts, such as Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 admitted Catholics to the practice of law, permitted the exercise of their religion, the existence of Catholic schools and allowed them to take degrees at Trinity College. How can a farm labourer earning a daily rate of 6d (when he can get work) afford to spend 7s6d on a book? Or send his children to school?
    Two causes screwed Ireland economically – taxation/trade barriers and absenteeism. Various acts of parliament from the Cromwellian era (e.g. the Navigation Acts of 1663 and 1666) meant that English colonies could receive goods only via England on English ships. Unlike Scotland, Ireland was excluded from the benefits of the laws from 1670 until 1779. Ireland was also further penalised with the imposition of heavy duties imposed on goods landed in England. The Irish woollen trade was ruined and various other acts and tariffs destroyed other sectors, such as a growing glass industry.
    Absenteeism was a curse - a list of Irish absentees published in Dublin and London in 1730 detailed their income spent abroad – that year it amounted to £600,000. A similar list published forty years later gave the figure at £1,200,000 (approx. figures, it was double). This was a huge drain on an economy that already was fragile as a results of tariffs and trade barriers. Were even a fraction of those sums spent on Irish estates the result would have uplifted the daily lives of the labouring classes. There were some ‘improving’ landlords, but they were the exception and few and far between.
    These people had next-to-no education, and yet even their women could read and write... or appreciate poetry.
    I think you are making a mistake common to many novice genealogists – you are making a few random pieces of information fit the narrative you want to construct. That is why many online family trees are rubbish. The general state of education in the laboring classes cannot be extrapolated from a few gravestones. Just look at the early census returns. The strength of the oral tradition is long recognized in Ireland, and as Kildarefan has pointed out above they could have bought from a catalogue.
    I have checked the records, and double-checked them. The people I am quoting are not local lords, they are minor farmers. Otherwise, they would have left land-based records. …….they weren't well educated, but they were intelligent.
    Nobody has suggested they were not intelligent. Do not conflate ‘intelligence’ with literacy.




  • KildareFan wrote: »
    Farewell vain world... versions of this inscription occurs in other cemeteries - here are a few from England. I think what we are looking at here is the work of stonemasons and monumental sculptors who would suggest appropriate wordings to clients, rather than individuals composing verses:
    Of course.

    My whole point here is that these survivors were probably illiterate anyway. That's why I used the word "commissioned" about the epithaps -- obviously these weren't original verses. If you want to read back across the thread, you'll see it's always been made clear that these are not original works. Nobody is suggesting that the survivors of the bereaved were poets!

    The epitaphs are somwhat interesting, considering they were commissioned for people that are thought to adhere to certain historical stereotypes; whom we might assume to be uneducated. That's all.




  • Thank you, this post was quite enlightening.

    From memory, but I'd need to check the record, I'm pretty sure the widow was renting 50 acres (45 acres, if memory serves) in the mid-19th century. They were not destitute, but it seems to me that they weren't rich. I highly doubt they had anything to do with the celtic nobility.
    I wouldn't read too much into renting; practically everybody who farmed land in Ireland at the time rented it. If she rented as much as 50 acres she was definitely at the upper end of the social scale among the farming classes.

    And this is corroborated by the fact that she was prosperous enough to commission a headstone.
    Do you know how available was education to young catholic women of modest backgrounds, during the 18th century? Is it not strange that girls would be able to read, or appreciate verse?
    The fact that she could appreciate verse doesn't mean that she could read. Verse forms exist, if you think about it, partly because they lend themselves to being memorised and recited. There are plenty of examples of societies in which literacy is limited but verses thrive.

    But, in fact, it wouldn't be surprising or unusual if she could read. Because . . .
    I would have thought there was no particular education available, except for girls intending to become catholic nuns.
    It comes down to utility. A farm of 50 acres is an enterprise large enough to require some management, and basic literacy and numeracy is definitely useful. Somebody has to be able to keep the farm accounts, read and understand invoices, etc.

    So, if she came from a background where she might aspire to marry into such a farm, it would make sense for her to be educated to at least that level. Her parents might well have arranged for this, and she likewise might do the same for her daughters (and sons, naturally). There was widespread demand for basic literacy and numeracy, and hedge schools (mostly conducted, in fact, in chapels) existed to meet this demand, and were attended by both boys and girls. Formal Catholic church schools were also legal from 1780 onwards though in fact the church had very little resources to provide them; it wasn't until well into the nineteenth century that the teaching religious orders began to make much of an impact.




  • We joined the local Tidy Towns group recently and spent a day tidying up the local, very overgrown, CoI graveyard in Oranmore.

    I was in charge of a family plot, one of the graveslabs had the following inscription:
    I shall arise
    The Earth shall cast out the dead

    - Isaiah 26.19

    I don't know about you but that's not something I wanted to happen mid-graveyard tidying :eek: :p


    In a separate part of the grave, there was a headstone bearing the attached inscription.
    I initially presumed it was the commonplace IHS inscription but this looks more like CHA. Has anyone seem this elsewhere?


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  • Rmulvany wrote: »
    I initially presumed it was the commonplace IHS inscription but this looks more like CHA. Has anyone seem this elsewhere?


    CHA does not make sense to me. Sometimes IHS was written CHS or IHSV.
    Maybe it's just a typo?:D


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