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Tombstone Poetry

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An epitaph can include biographical information, historical references, warnings, testimonies, words of comfort and hope, or prayers.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 two examples of epitaph poetry.

Mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr:
“Will” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Mayor Maynard Jackson’s monument is unique in many ways. The black granite monument sits nearly fifteen feet tall and weighs close to fourteen tons. It features four hand-carved bronze discs, each representing an aspect of Jackson’s legacy. Lush ivy grows in front of the monument. Historically, ivy has symbolized strength, endurance, and determination. One side of the monument is engraved with the first sentence of Jackson’s favorite poem, “Will,” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (in bold below). Like the ivy, the poem speaks of a determined soul.

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate,
Can circumvent or hinder or control
The firm resolve of a determined soul.
Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great;
All things give way before it, soon or late.
What obstacle can stay the mighty force
Of the sea-seeking river in its course,
Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait?
Each well-born soul must win what it deserves.
Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate
Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves,
Whose slightest action or inaction serves
The one great aim. Why, even Death stands still,
And waits an hour sometimes for such a will.
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was known for her rhyming positive and upbeat poetry, yet one of her most famous works, “Solitude,” contained the line “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.” Wilcox was also an activist. Her 1914 poem “Protest” was an anthem for free speech, a call for suffrage, and a criticism of wealth inequality.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Mary Marsh Crankshaw:
“Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Located a few steps north of the Bell Tower, the Marsh Mausoleum is flanked by two large bronze urns. Tour guides will often point out the urns and discuss their symbolism: sunflowers for loyalty, the repeating egg-and-dart motif as a reference to the cycle of birth and death, ivy for abiding memory. But hidden on the backside of one of these symbolism-covered urns is the poetic epitaph for Mary Marsh Crankshaw.

Her epitaph reads, “When she passed, it seemed like the ceasing of exquisite music.”

 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 as “a celestial brightness – a more ethereal beauty – shone on her face and encircled her form.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By referencing the poem, the Marsh family may have attempted to draw parallels between the character of Evangeline and their beloved daughter, Mary. Born in 1869 to influential merchant Edwin Marsh and his wife Achsah, Mary Marsh died in 1895, less than a year after marrying Charles Weir Crankshaw. She was interred in the Marsh Mausoleum and her family dedicated her urn on August 11, 1895, which would have been her 26th birthday.

Mary Marsh Crankshaw’s epitaph and Mayor Jackson’s engraved marker are just a few examples of tombstone poetry. 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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