In Tombstone, Arizona’s boot hill cemetery, a headstone bears this epitaph:
Here lies Lester Moore.
He took four slugs from a .44,
Frontier towns seemed to enjoy macabre humor--or, perhaps, it was only their undertakers who did. In a graveyard in another such town, an epitaph reads:
Here lies a man named Zeke,
Second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.
An executed sheep stealer’s stone comments:
Here lies the body of
Who lived by wool
And died by hemp.
Of course, people of other times and places also liked such doggerel on theirs (or others’) markers, as these examples attest:
This ground with gravity:
Is filling his last cavity.
I put my wife beneath this stone
For her repose and my own.
Humorous epitaphs such as these (and there are many others, which apply to those who have departed from every walk of life) may be a form of black humor--wit and its product, witticisms, by which we express absurdity (it seems absurd that we should be born only to die)--or of gallows humor--wit and its byproducts, witticisms, by which we make fun of death and other dire conditions or situations--a sort of verbal whistling in the dark as we pass the cemetery at night.
However, headstones, gravestones, tombstones, or whatever one chooses to call them may have had a different purpose, originally. Notice that these words all have something in common--stone. They might have been used to hold the coffin down and prevent the escape of the corpse, should it, or its spirit, decide to return to haunt the living.
Since the beginning of human history, the living have feared the dead. A decaying corpse suggests, for some (and proves beyond all doubt, for others) that life may come to a bad end, that it is a tragedy rather than a comedy, and that it is absurd, even while lived, if it comes to naught in the end. The best thing to do is to hide the evidence of one’s mortality, and one way to do so is to bury the evidence--and, for good measure, to put a heavy object, such as a stone, atop it. This way, the cities of the living are segregated from the cities of the dead, and the denizens of each may keep company with their own kind.
The Veterans Administration recently approved the inscription of the Wicca five-sided star on deceased veterans' headstones. As one might suppose, the decision has generated quite a controversy.
In horror stories, the dead find the granite or marble stones erected upon their graves no impediment to their desire to rejoin the living. In horror movies, anything is possible, and ghosts, vampires, zombies, and all manner of other revenants, including a dead cat in Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Dead Man’s Party” episode, routinely return from the grave, whistle as we may when we pass the graveyard’s wrought-iron gates.
“Everyday Horrors: Tombstones” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.