Women’s Lives Written in Stone

by zeph

John T. McMahon Vine Hill Cemetery,
Plymouth Massachusetts

He was a failure as a husband and father
He was insane 15 years because of liquor
But died sober
May Christ have mercy on his soul
He was no pilgrim.

John Starkwether
Silver Lake Cemetery,
Portage, Wisconsin

Here is where friend Starkwether lies,
Nobody laughs, nobody cries
Where he goes, how he fares
Nobody knows, nobody cares.

On Margaret Daniels grave at Hollywood Cemetery Richmond, Virginia

She always said her feet were killing her
but nobody believed her.

On the grave of Ezekial Aikle in East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia

Here lies
Ezekial Aikle
Age 102
The Good
Die Young.

Mary Ann Weems
Godmanchester, England

To the Young of both Sexes.
This Stone is erected by public Subscription over the remains of MARY ANN WEEMS, who at an early age became acquainted with THOMAS WEEMS formerly of this Parish. This connection terminating in a compulsory Marriage, occasioned him soon to desert her and wishing to be Married to another Woman he filled up the measure of his iniquity by resolving to murder his Wife. Which he barbarously perpetrated at Wendy on their Journey to London toward which place he had induced her to go under the mask of reconciliation, May the 7th 1819. He was taken within a few hours after the crime was committed, tried and subsequently executed at Cambridge on the 7th of August in the same Year.

On the grave of Phoebe Hessel

In memory of Phoebe Hessel who was born at Stepney in the year 1713. She served for many Years as a private soldier in the 5th Regt of foot in different parts of Europe and in the Year 1745 fought under the command of the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Fontenoy where she received a bayonet wound in her arm. Her long life which commenced in the time of Queen Anne extended to the reign of George IV, by whose munificence she received comfort and support in her latter Years. She died at Brighton where she had long resided on December 12th 1821 Aged 108 years.

. . .

I used to have a book of epitaphs, and as a teenager I had a fascination with reading these remarks about lives past; in quiet graveyards among tall grasses. Above are a few I have collected from the internet, some are funny, some sad, but all informative in one way or another about the lives of women.

The first one is, I am sure, written by a woman; it is a complaint about marriage carved in stone. You can feel the years of bitterness, the sense of entrapment, how this became focused on the behaviour of the husband, and the final relinquishing of the futile hope of changing him. A feminist dream of a free life and free motherhood, was simply beyond the writers imagination.
The second is just a description of an unmourned man it could have been written by anyone. I think the third is written by a man, it is funny with a sneer; in a couple of sentences it manages to evoke a life of drudgery, and how even in death, this woman’s pain was no more than a source of amusement.
The fourth is funny; another unmourned man who nevertheless survived to a considerable age.
The fifth is about the ubiquitous murder of wives, the exceptional part of the one described here, is that the husband was punished for it! Which maybe why the details are recorded on the gravestone, the propaganda of patriarchal justice parading on a monument. There was another epitaph, not included here, that advertised doctors and the details of their methods of treating dropsy, on the memorial of their dead female patient!
The sixth is about the life of a woman soldier, one of very many unsung women who ended up in the armed forces. She triumphs over the dangers of her occupation and manages to live to 108. More Stories about women who fought at the battle of Trafalgar can be found here, note they received no medals or recognition.

This is the epitaph of Aphra Behn.

“Here lies a Proof that Wit can
never be
Defence enough against
Mortality.”

This one by Dorothy Parker could only have been written by a woman

“Excuse my dust.”

I Don’t want an epitaph, but if I did, I think I would go for something funny like: There is only cake! Or, I recommend chocolate. What about, This is women’s land. What would your epitaph look like?

15 Comments to “Women’s Lives Written in Stone”

  1. I don’t know what my epitaph would look like but I recommend the masterpiece of a novel “The Waiting Years” by the Japanese writer Fumiko Enchi. It exemplifies the lives of all the women in your post, Zeph.
    The wife in question managed over the years to save up enough money to escape to the countryside with her daughter, but in the end she decided to stick with the marriage “for her daughter’s sake” because running away would clearly have destroyed her daughter’s chances of making a good marriage herself. The protagonist always thought she would outlive her husband, but it turns out that she was to die first. In the last chapter she is on her deathbed and her husband deigns to visit her there, asking her where she would like her body to be buried.
    “Just dump it” she replies. As she says the word “dump” her eyes grow wide with excitement. “Just dump it in the river”

    One woman who could envisage freedom but never quite made it. Perhaps, in a certain sense, the ability to envisage freedom is enough.

  2. “She never did know everything, but she died trying.”

    Thanks for the post, Zeph 🙂

  3. Thanks for the book recommendation Cherry.

    “the ability to envisage freedom is enough.”

    What about this for your epitaph?

  4. That is a good one SS, so truthful.

  5. Great, great post zeph. I loved it. Thank you for this glimpse into women’s history.

  6. I don’t want to be buried, but maybe there could be a memorial bench on a hike somewhere on my behalf. For women.

  7. Wow. These are amazing… checking out the link about Trafalgar (never learnt that in history class, of course). So, maybe off topic, but did you ever do any rubbings of the stones with paper and crayon? Think I did that in Girl Scouts.

    My epitaph? Hmm, “Eat My Dust”? Nah, I dunno… I always thought I’d like a tree planted on top of me. My body would grow into the tree and give it life. Preferably a tree that produces fruit, or at least a good climbing tree. And, if anyone tried to chop it down, I’d appear as a wraith and SCARE THEM TO DEATH.

  8. Love the bench idea, imagine sitting with a friend on a bench dedicated to you by a woman from another generation.

    Yes, I did the stone rubbings at school, mine always got hopelessly crumpled! “Eat My Dust” this made me laugh it’s the perfect antidote to “Excuse My Dust’.

    Here is Emily Dickinson’s:

    “Called Back”

  9. I also love the bench idea, and the tree. I can’t think of one for myself. I’m hoping whoever arranges it, will think of one that I would have liked!

  10. “Never quite learned to behave properly.”

  11. “Never quite learned to behave properly.”

    Excellent, that should encourage a few young women to rebel.

    Rain what about a line from a favourite poem or song?

  12. Susan B. Anthony

    “Liberty, Humanity, Justice, Equality”

    Emily Wilding Davison

    “Deeds Not Words”

  13. Ooooo, I love cemeteries. Especially really old ones. They’re so peaceful and quiet. I spend hours in them. I like to walk around reading the stones and try to envision what their lives were like. Sometimes I even talk to the stones. “Whoa, you lived during the Civil War – what was that like? When ppl were slaves and women had no rights?”

    Me? I want to be cremated and blown out of a cannon on the 4th of July so there’s pieces of me everywhere. But if that’s not possible, I tell folks to just buy a gallon of gas and light a match. Or, as my aunt would say, just stick a ham bone up my ass and let the dogs drag me away. I just find funerals horribly morbid. I don’t go to them and I don’t want one. I’ll be damned if some mutant profits off my death. Spend the money on a party instead or donate it to a women’s shelter. That’s what folks already give me as Christmas gifts at my request. Whatever the case, I won’t have a stone. But if I had one, I guess I’d be partial to W.C. Fields’ words – “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

  14. Wow. I feel all tingly reading this post and the lovely comments. I have always imagined myself sort of shimmering out to nothing rather than dying in my body. I often think of the peace of finally being free of this grotesque body and mad world. I imagine becoming part of the wind.

  15. I hate funerals as well Lucky, they are often the acme of insincerity, and why those genuinely in grief should have to be observed by others, I know not.

    Many women I have spoken to, say they have a desire to go to the sea to die, it seems natural enough to want to return to our beginnings. A good place to shimmy out on to the breeze too.

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