Lately I’ve been browsing among dusty books of epitaphs…. An appropriate kind of reading for a project on “Speaking with the Dead,” you might well say, but in fact not half as melancholy as it sounds. Collections of epitaphs and old inscriptions were published, pirated and republished regularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These collections tend to juxtapose actual inscriptions for the great and good in churches and cathedrals with highly dubious (and disparaging) epitaphs for drunkards and ne’er-do-wells. Their attraction clearly has much to do with the mingling of high and low, ornate and plain, true and fictive, “serious and facetious” (to quote the subtitle of Churchyard Gleanings, 1826).
You can’t get a feel for the contents of these collections from a single extract, but this one from A Collection of Epitaphs and Monumental Inscriptions (1806) gives a taste of what drew readers to these compilations.
This stone was erected, by her fellow-citizens, to the memory of
An industrious woman. She died Jan. the 1st, 1786, aged 77 years.
Was ever her cry;
She labour’d to live,
Poor and honest to die.
At the last day again,
How her old eyes will twinkle;
For no more will she cry,
Ye rich, to virtuous want rejoicing give;
Ye poor, by her example learn to live.
[This epitaph seems to have been inscribed on a stone in the cathedral churchyard, rather than within the walls. It does not survive.]