What comes to mind when you think of an epitaph? A favorite quotation? A mournful poem? A simple series of dates and a phrase like “rest in peace?”
Epitaphs serve a variety of purposes. They call tell us a bit about the deceased, such as their military service or proclaimed faith. Some read like resumes, listing accomplishments, or include humorous lines that give us a sense of the deceased’s personality. Many provide a record of migration, with early settlers or migrants often listing their birthplace on their gravestone.
The grave of Clyde Earl Hagan lets us in on Hagen’s humorous side.
The nearby grave of Henry Hagen tells a story of migration.
But epitaphs didn’t always serve such personal or emotional purposes. And the ways our final messages have changed over time mirror broader cultural changes in our relationship to death.
When graves bore names, dates and skulls
In the 1600s and into the 1700s, death was a tangible part of everyday life. Life expectancy in the U.S. was usually in the 30s, and infant mortality was high. Dying was not a medical event — instead it took place in the home, with people of all ages interacting directly with the realities of death.
During this time, epitaphs and grave imagery echoed this practical viewpoint. Epitaphs often included the name of the deceased, a birth date, and a death date. “Here lies the body of…” they read, using very earthly language. The imagery of the graves also reflected the physical reality of death. The skull — a common image on European gravestones, imported by settlers to the colonies — was not intended to be grim, but rather a matter-of-fact reminder of the inevitability of death.
A 1743 grave in New York City’s Trinity Church Yard, featuring a winged skull. Source: Urban Omnibus
After the funeral industry emerged
Later in the 1700s, epitaphs began to change. From the explicit, blunt language of death and images of skulls, we begin to see more euphemistic language for death, such as “resting,” “asleep,” or “at peace.” This change was not a coincidence. In 1759, the U.S.’s first funeral home opened. During the industrial revolution, the "funeral industry” began to take off. For the first time, professionals were paid to deal with the body of the deceased and “undertake” the funeral and memorial process. Many people interacted with the dead significantly less than they may have 100 years prior. Life expectancy eventually grew longer. And over time, death became something that took place in hospitals, rather than at home. For many Americans, death was becoming less tangible.
As fewer and fewer Americans were interacting with death on a daily basis, the language of epitaphs became more ambiguous and gentle — it became more common for American graves from the 18th century onward to bare images suggesting rebirth or an afterlife, such as flowers, birds and religious emblems.
Given the timeline of colonization of the land we now call Minnesota, it’s uncommon to find a grave with a “death’s head” image in a cemetery like Lakewood, which opened for burial in 1872. Shorter epitaphs usually just list a name, birth year and death year, rather than using the more explicit language of “died,” or “here lies the body.”
Around the same time that the experience of death was becoming less and less of a tangible experience for many Americans, we see another shift in the content of epitaphs. It is a shift in the focus of the text — from the person who died to the people left behind. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it became more and more common for monuments to include text about who erected the monument, and how much the deceased is missed by the survivors. Epitaphs started providing information not just about the dead, but about the living.
These three gravestones at Lakewood explicitly include information about the people who erected the monument, not just the deceased.
But the mid-1800s-early 1900s saw another trend that was shaping epitaphs across Europe and the U.S., and was certainly impacting monuments at Lakewood. The Victorian era was famous for its showy displays of opulence. And one place to have such a public display was at your final resting place. It wasn’t just about the size (and therefore cost) of the gravestone, but about the length of the epitaph, too: before laser engraving, stonemasons charged by the character for letter carving.
Not everyone could afford such grand monuments and long epitaphs, and over time the opulence of the Victorian era fell out of favor. But in the late 1800s / early 1900s, it was also becoming more common to include military service and accomplishments on gravestones.
Many gravestones at Lakewood tell of military service.
The idea that people use their epitaphs to say “remember me” to passersby is relatively new. A few people, like Sir Joseph Francis, whose grave overlooks Bde Maka Ska from Lakewood’s Section 1, used their epitaphs to list their accomplishments (including inventing a safer lifeboat and being honored by Congress) as early as the late 1800s. But this approach became more popular in the mid-1900s, as is evidenced by the graves of Richard G. Drew (d. 1980), whose grave marker reads simply, “Inventor of Scotch Tape,” or Callum deVillier (d. 1973), whose marker reads “World Record Marathon Dancer.” These graves beg passersby to learn more.
The graves of Richard G. Drew and Callum deVillier, both of whom’s epitaphs name a major accomplishment.
Today people find meaning at a time of loss not just through memorial markers and epitaphs, but through celebrations of life and meaningful time spent at places devoted to remembrance. Some people have returned to the simple approach of listing a name, birth dates and death dates. Others express their passions using engraved images like classic cars, picturesque scenery and musical instruments. Just like epitaphs of bygone eras, so too will our present-day monuments pique curiosity of passersby for generations to come.
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Tour the Lakewood Chapel (video)
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