In some grave situations wit and wisdom live forever


A South Florida story has reached Maryland, where at least one cemetery director has heard it. The story goes that a tombstone in Key West reads: "I Told You I was Sick."

In cemeteries across the country, tombstone inscriptions occasionally break solemn tradition and feature slabs of stand-up comedy -- even in Baltimore, where we found a few lively epitaphs.

At Loudon Park in Baltimore, the grave of Floyd and Elfie D. reads: "Out On Friday Night." Another tombstone in this storied cemetery says: "Christmas -- When All My Lights Went Out." You can almost hear an eternal rim shot.

At Oak Lawn Cemetery in Baltimore, president Barry Alderson's favorite epitaph story regards a baby blue 1957 Chevrolet -- the dream car of a generation, and Mr. Alderson's dream car, too. He showed us a gravesite marked " '57 Chevrolet is Heaven."

Michael J. Davis' grave is also decorated with Harley and Chevrolet insignia. The young blond man is pictured on the tombstone, which reads:

He lived his life short, but he lived it with a smile. He removed his rag top roof to life and his two wheels searched for peace.

For years, a woman would drive the baby blue '57 Chevy to the gravesite, park it, and leave it all day. Cemetery officials figured the woman was the young man's mother. They came to know her ritual.

"We knew what her idea was," Mr. Alderson says.

Next to Michael's marker, another one says Ruby C. Davis, 1980. That seems to be around the time the '57 Chevy stopped showing up at Oak Lawn Cemetery, Mr. Alderson says.

Most tombstone inscriptions are deadly serious. Credit New England for possibly being the birthplace of off-beat tombstone writing.

The rural cemetery movement was born in the late 18th century, when New Englanders ditched the Puritans' position that cemeteries were the weedy and wretched playgrounds of fallen angels. Dignified, landscaped cemeteries arose. So did levity.

At an old New England burial ground, a Mr. Church had buried four wives -- not all at the same time, we assume. He personally moved their remains to a new cemetery, but the bones got mixed up. The epitaph dealt with his housekeeping problem:

Stranger pause and drop a tear

For Emily Church lies buried here

Mixed in some perplexing manner

With Mary, Matilda and probably Hannah.

And here lies a perpetual plug for a Colonial marble cutter from Massachusetts:

Here lies Jane Smith wife of Thomas Smith, marble cutter --

This monument was erected by her husband

As a tribute to her memory and specimen of his work

Monuments of the same style -- $250 --

Besides epitaphs, people also plan inventive burial rituals. At Oak Lawn, a plumber is buried below a marble bathtub. Another man is buried with his Triumph motorcycle; in fact, he's buried on his hog.

To immortalize one man, a tombstone is in the works that will feature a deck of cards on one side and a beer stein on the other. The man's wife has ordered the marker, which will perhaps unwittingly capture the Essence of Man: beer and poker.

"That's what her husband did," says Mr. Alderson at Oak Lawn.

Rather than have a survivor compose the inscription, some people (control freaks?) write their own epitaphs. Leave it to Benjamin Franklin to write his own with such economical humor, style and imagery. He wrote this in 1728. It was finally used in 1790:

The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding), lies here, food for worms; but the work shall not be lost, for it will (as he believed) appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.

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