Saturday, July 17, 2010

Now That's Different!

I found this cutting through the Common Burying Ground on the way to someplace else (click to enlarge).

The human form

respected for its honesty

and known 53 years

by the appellation


began to dissolve in the

month of February 1789

That has got to be the weirdest epitaph I've read yet. And on a plain domed slate slab undecorated except for those two simple border lines. It almost reminds me of some of the funerary traditions that sprang up in Europe in the wake of the plague in the 14th Century, dealing with death as an end and depicted as corruption. Gray's Elegy also springs to mind:
The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow'r,
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable Hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.
I wonder if Christopher Ellery or his heirs had read that?

© 2010 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. I'll have to admit, I've never seen "began to dissolve" used instead of "died" on a stone! Odd and wonderful!!

  2. I think that is the strangest epitaph I have ever seen on a headstone. How makes me want to investigate his death.

  3. Re: your comment at Willow's about the blues. You make a good point, which is what makes conversations like that lively! I absolutely love Janis's "Women Is Losers" (it's so catchy!), but if a man sang it I'd hate it.

    I see the rather arcane phrase "boy howdy" above your picture. Were you a reader of the late great music magazine CREEM? They used that phrase all the time and as you probably know, had a little cartoon bottle with a face and limbs that said it.

    This post is interesting. "Began to dissolve"? Those early Americans needed to lighten up a bit, I think. Perhaps it is a heavy handed way of pointing up a distinction between the saintly, whose bodies remain incorruptible, and the rest of us poor sinners.

    I also love love love your post below. Marvelous photographs!

  4. Talk about casting a cold eye! No one can say that Chris wasn't fatalistic.

  5. It is a fine epitaph, one I wouldn't mind adopting for myself - although I suspect I have already started to dissolve.

  6. Yes, I was wondering, if his body began to dissolve in Feb. 1789, was that prior to his death? and he wrote this himself? sp

  7. very weird & quite illusive as we never learn where christopher's dissolution stopped!

  8. I looked it up - there was a Rhode Island Senator named Christopher Ellery (who could have been this man's son). The senator died in Middletown in 1840 and is buried in island Cemetery in Newport

  9. What a striking epitaph--oddly, to my mind, more poetic than Gray!

  10. Heh, heh! Historian and New England gravestone carver expert Caitlin GD Hopkins added this one in 2008 to her collection of "101 Ways to Say 'Died'".

    Sue, that's the guy. Actually, he has a more exalted family than that. His uncle William was one of RI's signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his nephew was William Ellery Channing, the founder of the Unitarian church. An interesting family altogether.

  11. That's bloody marvelous.

    And oh, The Elegy! Back in the day, my father decided to teach me his own version of Poetry Appreciation, and it started with that one. I can still recite some of it.