Whimsical Gravestones

Like most genealogists, when I see a cemetery, my first instinct is to check it out. I remember the exact tombstone that got me hooked, too. I am descended from the family of Henry Sayward who settled in York, Maine in the 1600’s. His son, and my direct line,  is Elder James Sayward who was born about 1667 in York. He married Deborah Stover, daughter of Sylvester Stover, about 1692, probably in York, but the births of his children are all recorded in Gloucester, Massachusetts between 1694 and 1712.

While reading an early issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, I came across this epitaph found in the First Parish Burial Ground in Gloucester, Massachusetts:

Here lyes Buried
The body of Elder
James Sayword
the 13th 1736/7
In the 68th Year
of His Age

It was back in 1980 when I saw found this and Dave and I were going to visit family in New England and do some genealogical hunting. (This was very early in my addiction.) Although this epitaph had been printed in the Register in the 1800’s, I was sure it was still there waiting for me to find it so off we went to Gloucester. We had to get directions to the cemetery, which included driving through someone’s back yard past the laundry on the clothesline to reach the sloping hill where the cemetery was.

It was summertime, there were plenty of mosquitoes about and the cemetery was overgrown with weeds. Dave wanted to leave after about 30 minutes because we hadn’t found the gravestone. I wasn’t about to agree to that unless I was positive that the stone no longer existed so we kept looking. I also reminded Dave that I hadn’t come 3,000 miles from California to just walk away. We did find James Sayword’s stone and that of his wife, Deborah Stover Sayward, who predeceased him on 13 July 1734. Pictures that we took have long since faded and I threw them away or else I would post them. That was the stone that cemented my interest, so to speak, in reading tombstones.

Back to the topic at hand – whimsical tombstones. As most of us know, there are a number of unusual stones to be found in cemeteries. They range from joke epitaphs to pets guarding their masters’ graves to ornately carved ancient stones to modern stones that look like beloved autos and other worldly possessions left behind. They all tell something about the story of a person’s life. Personally, though, there is one example of tombstone that I think should have been required for everyone who ever lived in a burned county:

Gravestone in Christchurch, New Zealand

How would you like to come across a field of stones like this one if your family lived in, say, Buckingham County, Virginia or Morgan County, Tennessee, both of which lost most of their records to fires in the 1860’s?

Most of my family’s gravestones are fairly typical of the times in which the people lived, both in the way they look and for the information found on them. There are exceptions to “common” “ordinary” gravestones so I thought I would share one in my mother-in-law’s Sturgell family.

Marlett Tillman Sturgell, her cousin, was born 30 September 1907 and died 20 March 1993 in Barry County, Missouri. His wife, Dora M. Black Sturgell, was born 27 September 1909 and died 27 December 1998. Dave and I actually met Dora and some of her family when we visited Barry County, again on a genealogy hunt. It was about 1994 or 1995 as Marlett had fairly recently passed away when we visited.

However, before he died, Marlett decided that he wanted his gravestone to not only include birth and death dates AND their date of marriage, but he wanted the stone to reflect the love they had for their home and farm and what they had accomplished in life. Here is the front of their gravestone.

Dora & Marlett Sturgell Headstone
Marlett and Dora Sturgell, Clio Cemetery
Jenkins, Barry County, Missouri

After Dora died, this photo was added to the stone:

Dora and Marlett

So far, this looks like a very typical gravestone, although their photo in the stone and their marriage date etched in it is a bit less common. When you walk around to look at the back of their stone, this is what you see:

Sturgell Headstone
Back of the Stone – “Gone Home”

Here are close ups of the house and barn – without the reflections of my husband’s and his uncle’s feet!

House Portion of Sturgell Headstone
Marlett and Dora looking at their home

Without knowing a thing about Marlett and Dora, a stranger would immediately know something about their life and what was important to them.

Thinking about one’s gravestone can be a rather maudlin activity, but recently, I saw a gravestone photo on Pinterest that is perfect for the addicted genealogist like me:


I showed this to Dave and his response was, “Boy, that cost a lot of money.” My answer, “Well, you can’t take it with you.”

Wouldn’t finding a stone like this be genealogical heaven?

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