Deciphering the rhetoric (and more) of the dead

Posted on March 11, 2017 by


In the course of dreaming, have you ever had an experience in which you attempt to vocalize something and are unable to make the sounds your brain intends? In dreaming, there’s that weird divide between our subconscious and conscious that, I guess in some shallow stage of sleep, we sometimes attempt to broach. While most of the communications within our dreams are all subconscious, there are those moments in which we move to break out of that subconscious state and, even while still asleep and dreaming, attempt to engage the motor skills (often unsuccessfully) behind our ability to talk out loud.

Hold that thought for just a bit…

While recently visiting the graves of ancestors in two cemeteries, I took more time than normal to focus on the fine inscriptions near the bottom of the stones. Usually they are religious references of Biblical quotes. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to decipher the fine print. A few years ago, in fact, I spent several hours trying to make out the fine print at the bottom of my 4th great grandfather’s stone.


In the end, I figured it out…

Kind Angels watch this sleeping dust
Till Jesus comes to raise the just
Then may he wake with sweet surprise
And in his Savior’s image rise.

Sure I could have used black chalk dust or something similar, but I found that trying to decipher lines of the text led to Google searches for short blocks of the text. Though I could not find the origin (which is a bit frustrating, actually), I did find several references to it being used on several headstones in the early 1800s (seemingly most popular in the US in through the 1830s), though the earliest… at least according to my Google search… being in Harewood, Leeds, England, in 1789.

Still, there are other quotes on family headstones that remain rather difficult to make clear, and this is where what my discussion of our struggle to articulate in dreams comes into play. Individuals, whether they be the person within the grave or the family members who saw to the selection of an epitaph, left a form of rhetoric. Somebody wanted to say something more to those who passed the headstone in the future… and, over the course of time, because of weathering and so forth, that message is sometimes impossible to read.


But, I’ll go one step further, beyond the rhetoric of the fine, faded sentiments on headstones.

Anyone who struggles to make sense of the people in those graves often (too often, it seems) has very fragmented information to go on. Inevitably, we know so little when we consider the many years, months, days, hours, minutes in which an individual lived. Standing at a graveside of one who died years before we even came along, that fine text I mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg, it seems, to a voice we struggle to hear. Standing by a graveside, such thoughts… as creepy as it might sound to some… animate the dead, in a sense, where we… or at least me, at this particular moment I had a few weeks back… relate to the frustration of not being able to vocalize in some sort of dream state. If we are in the midst of research on a particular person in a particular grave… next to which we stand on a given day… this simple graveside visit becomes much more profound, and we (at least, me) are able to spend more time humanizing the person than when we simply visit him or her on paper. For that reason, that “graveside empathy”, if you will, over what we can relate from our frustrations in a dream state, holds value… perhaps more than just as a curious researcher.

Such thinking might be rather eccentric… or strange… in our time, but this virtual animation of the dead was not uncommon among those of the nineteenth century. It reminds me of a few lines from quote I used in one of my books… the quote coming from a relatively little known poet from the antebellum era, Cornelia Jane Matthews Jordan:

Forget us not, us who are lying here
In slumber deep and dismal, darkness drear,
The while your busy footsteps onward pass
Above us low; pause near the lonely spot,
And in your joy of life forget us not.

Forget us not who once were glad as you
‘Mid the bright sunshine and the glistening dews,
Walking abroad, loving the teeming earth,
With all its glow of beauty, sounds of mirth,
Till, for your sakes, and with no slavish fear,
We met the direful fate that laid us here.
Forget us not – we do not ask to be
Like haunting ghosts marring your human glee;
But as in Memory, holy things are kept,
O’er which Affection’s loyal tears are wept,
So in your hearts’ deep hidden shrines and dear
We would be cherished who are sleeping here.


Posted in: Research