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Oakland Tours in Focus: Epitaph Poetry

by Marcy Breffle, Education Coordinator
Walking through Oakland Cemetery, you will notice phrases and statements inscribed on the grave markers of the dead. Funny, somber, uplifting, or tender – these epitaphs both memorialize those who have passed and establish a continuing dialogue between the dead and the living. Epitaphs can give insight into the life of an individual or convey the feelings of those who knew them best. A good epitaph can capture the essence of a personality, while cryptic epitaphs leave more to the imagination.
An epitaph can include biographical information, historical references, warnings, testimonies, words of comfort and hope, or prayers. Victorians often quoted scriptures or hymns, but poems were also commonplace. As April is National Poetry Month, this post will explore a few examples of epitaph poetry.

Learn more about the poetic epitaphs found at Oakland Cemetery on Sunday’s special topic tour, “Epitaphs: The Immortality of Words.”

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George Kershaw's marker at Oakland Cemetery

George Kershaw’s marker at Oakland Cemetery

Across the road from the iconic Neal Monument, a poetic epitaph can be found on the grave marker of George Kershaw (d. April 1882):

“I shall know the loved who have gone before
And joyfully sweet our meeting be
When over the river, the peaceful river
The angel of death shall carry me.”

The excerpt comes from the popular poem, “Over the River” by Nancy Amelia Woodbury Priest Wakefield. In the popular poem, the narrator speaks of loved ones who have passed away, or crossed over the river to “the better shore of the spirit land.”
Walk towards the front gate to find the gravestone of Isabella Read Buchanan (1860-1938). Her epitaph reads:

“Think of her faring on,
as dear in the love of there as the love of here
Think of her still the same, I say
She is not dead, she is just away.”

Isabella Read Buchanan

Isabella Read Buchanan’s marker

The epitaph is a variation of the poem “Away,” which was written by James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916). Mr. Riley is often referred to as the “Hoosier Poet” for writing in the 19th century Hoosier dialect, and also as the “Children’s Poet” for writing poetry for children. Two famous works include Little Orphan Annie and The Raggedy Man. It is believed that Johnny Gruelle, the children’s book author and creator of the fictional characters “Raggedy Ann” and “Raggedy Andy,” combined the two poem titles to create the name of the beloved rag dolls.
Circling back to the Bell Tower, look for the two large urns that flank the entrance of the Marsh Mausoleum. Tour guides will often point out the urns and discuss the symbols (sunflowers for loyalty, the repeating egg-and-dart motif that references the cycle of birth and death) covering the pieces. But don’t forget to walk around the back of the urn dedicated to Mary Marsh Crankshaw. Her epitaph reads, “When she passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.”
Detail of the Marsh urns

Detail of the Marsh urns

This epitaph comes from the poem “Evangeline by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem is considered one of the earliest important long poems in American literature and Longfellow’s most famous work. Published in 1847 and written in unrhymed dactylic hexameter, the poem is a story of love and loss. It follows a girl named Evangeline and her search for her lost love Gabriel. As a young woman, Evangeline is depicted as fair and gentle. Longfellow describes Evangeline in his epic poem, writing “a celestial brightness – a more ethereal beauty – shone on her face and encircled her form.”
By referencing the poem, the Marsh family may have attempted to draw parallels between the character of Evangeline and their beloved daughter, Mary. Mary Marsh was born in 1869 to influential merchant Edwin Marsh and his wife Achsah. She died in 1895, less than a year after marrying Charles Weir Crankshaw. She was placed in the Marsh Mausoleum and the urn was dedicated to her on August 11, 1895, which would have been her 26th birthday.
The epitaphs of George Kershaw, Isabella Read Buchanan, and Mary Marsh Crankshaw are just a few examples of poetic epitaphs. The next time you visit Oakland, take a moment to read the epitaphs around you. You may find yourself inspired to write a little poetry.

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