Think you can have anything you want carved on your tombstone? Think again. When a Lancashire man’s family wanted to write “Sleep Tight Dad” with Xs representing kisses on his monument, the local parish priest objected and asked for the offending gravestone to be removed. The parents of a young soldier were forced by Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati to take down a “Sponge-Bob-“shaped monument, at least temporarily. Such cemetery sensitivities are nothing new. In 1905, the Tombstone Censor was on the job and in the news.
THE TOMBSTONE CENSOR
He Sees That No Unseemly Inscription Mars the Cemetery
A tombstone censor is employed by most large cemeteries. It is the duty of this man to see that nothing unseemly in the way of a tombstone is put up.
A young engineer in a Norristown mill was killed by the explosion of a boiler, and the family of this young man, believing that the mill owners had known all along that the boiler was defective, actually had carved on the tombstone the sentence, “Murdered by his masters.” The tombstone censor, of course, refused to sanction such an epitaph.
On the death of a certain noted prize fighter the surviving brother of the man wanted to put in a glass case beside the grave a championship belt, four medals, a pair of gloves and other trophies of the ring. But the censor’s negative was firm.
A widow who believed that the physician was responsible for her husband’s death wished to put on the tomb, “He employed a cheap doctor,” but the tombstone censor showed her that such an inscription would lay her open to heavy damages for libel.
Atheists sometimes direct in their wills that shocking blasphemies be carved on their monuments. The censor, however, sees to it that these blasphemies do not disfigure the cemetery. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 22 June 1905: p. 3
There was a relatively recent case in England of a widow being made to take down her husband’s cricket-bat tombstone, but I’m unable to find the reference. The story was practically identical to this one:
A Remarkable Tombstone
[Sheffield (Eng.) Telegraph.]
All day Sunday a large number of people visited Wadsley Church-yard to inspect a tombstone which has recently been erected to the memory of Benjamin Keeton. The characteristic of the tombstone is that immediately after the worlds “In affectionate remembrance of,” and before “Benjamin Keeton,” there is engraved in very bold relief a set of stumps, six inches across, with balls on, the stumps being a foot high; a cricket-bat, which is across the stumps, the bottom of the bat resting on the ground, the bat being eighteen inches high, and the handle appearing as if it were wrapped with the orthodox waxed thread. The Vicar and Church Wardens as soon as they saw the stone, communicated with the widow of the deceased, and required her to remove it in three days. The widow of the deceased says there has been nothing irregular, and she has no intention either to remove or deface the stone. On the other hand, the officers of Church say that the putting up of the stone was a trespass, as the stone got into the church-yard surreptitiously. Keeton was a professional cricketer. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 January 1877: p. 2
This article, from a monument-makers’ trade journal, spells out the law in England and mentions a few high-profile cases.
THE LAW AND TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS.
Not long ago an American newspaper called attention to the fact that the vestry of an English church refused to allow a few lines of poetry to be inscribed upon a tombstone in the churchyard. The ground of their objection was that the verses were held to be “mere doggerel.” The vestry was undoubtedly unaware of the fact, brought out by the newspaper, that the “doggerel” was from the pen of no less a writer than Longfellow, whose bust is given an honored place in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. As if to even up for this international slight, the same writer recalled the fact that another vestry board refused to permit a tombstone inscription from Tennyson, on the ground that it was sacrilegious.
The curious epitaphs that so frequently find their way into print must often cause the serious to grieve. That a tombstone is no place for jocularity, for sarcasm, for mawkish sentimentality or for grotesque exaggeration is one of those things that should be known without teaching. But it is not known, and a tombstone censor would be an overworked official in almost any community. It is a question how far church officials or cemetery directors could go in the supervision of epitaphs or inscriptions in this country. That the law would frequently be invoked is evident. \With the Established Church in England, the condition of affairs is far different. A recent exchange touches on this matter, and quotes several decisions that have a general interest to readers of Stone. The writer says: It would appear from many legal decisions that, notwithstanding the powers vested in an incumbent, he has no legal right to refuse to allow an inscription on a tombstone in his churchyard of a simple and scriptural nature. Apart from the sentiment of the question it was never intended or contemplated by the Legislature that the ordinary’s power to regulate the inscriptions on tombstones should be oppressively or arbitrarily exercised. Sec. 28 of 15 and 16 Vic., ch. 85, provides (inter alia) that any question which shall arise touching the fitness of any monumental inscription placed in any parts of the consecrated portions of the burial ground shall be determined by the Bishop of the diocese. In the case of Keet vs. Smith, L.R. 4, Adm. and Eccl. 398. and P.D. 73, the incumbent objected to the promised inscription on a tombstone, and on application being made by the father of the deceased for a faculty, the Chancellor of the diocese and the Court of Arches refused it, but the Privy Council, seeing nothing objectionable in the inscription, directed it to issue. The objection taken by the incumbent in this case was that the deceased was described as “The Reverend,”‘ he being only a Wesleyan minister, and as such, in the incumbent’s opinion, not entitled to the prefix” “Reverend.” The inscription in its entirety was as follows:—”I.H.S. In loving memory of Anne Augusta Keet, the younger daughter of the Rev. H. Keet. Wesleyan minister, who died at Owston Ferry, May11th, 1874, aged 7 years and 9 months. Safe sheltered from the storms of life.” It should be remarked that no exception was taken to the latter part of this inscription.
Again in the case of Breeks vs. Woolfrey. Curt 887, Sir Herbert Jenner said:—”It was not denied, nay it was admitted, that if the inscriptions were of the character attributed to them in the citation, viz., contrary to the articles, canons and constitutions, and to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England—no person had a right to erect a tombstone with such inscriptions impugning the doctrines of the Church of England, and that a person so offending is liable to be punished.” The inscription in this case was “Pray for the soul of J. Woolfrey,” and the court held that such an inscription was not illegal. Stone; an Illustrated Magazine, Volume 19, 1899
Apparently the Tombstone Censor could not be everywhere, for there were a surprising number of stories in the 19th- and early 20th-century press about epitaph lawsuits, such as these two:
A CURIOUS EPITAPH
Tombstone Maker, of Wheeling, W. Va., Takes a Queer Revenge and Gets in Serious Trouble.
Among curious epitaphs, that which is engraved on the monument of James Rine, of Wheeling, W. Va., is certainly the most unique. List most epitaphs of interest, says the Chicago Daily News, this one does not spring from an attempt to eulogize the dead; on the contrary it is a distinct effort to cast disgrace upon the sleeper beneath the stone. The inscription, besides the name, date of birth and death of the deceased, tells the world in large letters that “This Ain’t Paid For.”
Some years since James Rine had Tombstone Maker Carroll erect on the family lot at Stone Meeting House Cemetery a monument for which he gave his note in payment. Before the same matured Rine died, with his estate insolvent. Carroll, being unable to collect his claim, inscribed on the stone: “This Ain’t Payed For.” In consequence, the nearer relatives had him indicted. Morning Olympian [Olympia, WA] 19 November 1899: p. 4
LIBEL SUIT CAUSE UNIQUE
Tombstone Inscription Curious
Widow is in Dilemma.
Hamburg, May 28. From Heligoland comes a curious libel action for the German courts to deal with in the course of the present sessions.
Last year the lighthouse-keeper on the island died, and his affectionate widow put up a tombstone on which was inscribed: “Neglect shortened thy life in the Spring of thy years.”
Friends of the widow say this was a dig at the authorities, who sent no relief to the lighthouse-keeper when he needed it, but the local doctor has read it as a reflection on himself. So he has filed a suit for libel.
Now the widow is faced with a dilemma. She denies any reflection on the doctor, and, as she draws an official pension she does not wish to fall foul of the authorities. Her defence, therefore, is that she set up the inscription for her own neglect of her husband in his last hours. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 29 May 1910: p. 2
Either standards have become much more lax in some cemeteries or the Tombstone Censor was looking the other way when this particular monument was carved. Any other actionable epitaphs? Laser-etch on a slab of Vermont marble and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the BBC article that inspired this post.]
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.