In Glenwood Cemetery there is this crazy marble tombstone that presents an exhilarating challenge to decipher (figure 1). On its front it’s got two tall columns of equal size which are filled with crabbed, densely arranged text in letters 7-8 mm high, about 300 words, I estimate. That makes this one of the longest texts on a private tombstone in the country, if not the world. And that makes it correspondingly important.

The problem is that not one of those words is legible because the marble is badly weathered and what’s more, it has a dank crust of dirt and lichen. The amount of weathering and the use of marble point to a date before about 1890, and my gut says more like 1870 +/- 20 years. I think part of the weathering comes from past attempts at cleaning, or taking rubbings of the text.

We’re left to trying to deduce the text from a few indirect clues such as formatting and the relative sizes of the paragraphs. Luckily, a series of double-height, deeply cut Roman numerals is mostly legible. These run from I through IV in the first column, and V through X in the second. This is a huge clue, of course. Ten Commandments? Bill of Rights?

The smart money in the nineteenth century would be on the Decalog, and at this point we have to try to see if the inferential evidence of the paragraphing by Roman numerals corresponds to that of the Ten Commandments or that of the Bill of Rights. I used the King James Version, which would have prevailed, I think, when the monument was built; the Bill of Rights has one authoritative text.

So I took my photograph and annotated it, marking the lines of text under each paragraph (figure 2). I traced the Roman numerals in red and drew a blue line through each line of text I could see. I put the tallies in blue beside each paragraph. I also wrote in each paragraph the word count of the corresponding Commandment (in purple) and amendment in the Bill of Rights (in gold). Don’t worry, I’ve tabulated the results (table 1).

You’ll already have seen that I’m comparing apples and oranges, line counts vs. word counts. in order to find a common denominator I decided to reduce both benchmark measures to the percentage each paragraph, or Commandment, or Amendment has compared to the whole relevant text. Using the lines of text on the stone is a crude proxy for word counts, and I suppose they might be off by 10% owing to partial lines and irregularities in the formatting. Still, better than nothing. These figures, too, are in table 1.

Table 1. Paragraph lengths on the Glenwood Cemetery monument in figure 1 versus the length of the correspondingly numbered amendment of the Bill of Rights and commandment of the Ten Commandments. Table: author.

There are areas of strong agreement with the Commandments, while there is a very poor match for the Bill of Rights. The smart money seems to be right betting on religion over politics in the later nineteenth century. Particularly telling is the quick series of paragraphs in the sequence VII – VIII – IX which correspond to three short commandments.

Yet paragraph VI, on the righthand column of the stone, has 5 lines of text and 9% of all lines on the stone, whereas the sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” has but four words and 1.30% of the total words in the KJV Ten Commandments. Paragraphs II, III, IV, and V are also problematic, but VI stands out like a sore thumb. The commandment is a simple four word sentence, “Thou shalt not kill,” as against a 5-line paragraph under the numeral VI on the stone.

In despair, I summoned forth my best reading glasses and had a close look at the text on the monument. I annotated my photographs with text where I thought I could make it out. My method was bad, because I went to the inscription with the text (KJV) in hand, whereas the right way to do it would be to puzzle out letters and then have a look at the text. This was a non-starter, since I am unable to read a single character on the stone with any confidence at all. In the following two image galleries (figures 3-6) I offer my original photos of details of several paragraphs alongside my annotated versions of the same photos. You can judge how badly I succumbed to confirmation bias for yourself.

In paragraph III I’m pretty sure I see “sabbath” with its s, bb, and th, and many other words appear to be recognizable once you know what you’re looking for. I warned you about my bad method, but it’s like looking at the text with blurry vision: the shape of some letters, and especially of some common words is sometimes distinctive enough to determine them.

The short paragraphs VII, VIII, and IX appear to match the corresponding Commandments well in length and text. The beginning of the three paragraphs appear to have the same word, whatever it is; I think it is shaped like ‘Thou,’ but see my remarks on method above. See, too, that the same shape appears to begin the line of text immediately above the paragraph numeral VII. More on this in a second.

The bottom of column 1 must have been covered by earth for a long time: two lines of text are substantially less weathered than the rest. I appear to see a ‘not’ toward the center-left of the final line; sadly, KJV has no ‘not’ in Commandment IV. There are some ‘nor’s, but the rest does not appear to match. It’s worth noting that lawnmowers have clipped a few millimeters from the side of the stone: we’ll have lost as much as a letter or two at the beginning of the last two lines. The comments section exists for you to correct me or add what you see that I missed.

Despite my atrocious method, I am convinced that the stonecutter put the entire Ten Commandments onto this tombstone, but I am not convinced that it was done without some substantial errors or deliberate changes. I suspect, for example, that the line directly above the Roman numeral VII says “Thou shalt not kill,” the sixth Commandment. If I’m right, the Roman numeral VI ought to have fallen directly above this line, so that we would have a very quick series of VI / line / VII / line / VIII / line / IX / line, in agreement with the Ten Commandments. As you see, VI falls 5 lines above (figure 2).

Even if we can fix paragraph VI this way, we would end up adding four more lines to paragraph V, which makes the fit with the corresponding Commandment even worse (see table 1). In fact, there are some pretty notable discrepancies in the length of paragraphs II, III, IV and V with the corresponding commandments on the stone. If the VI was transposed by a blunder from where it belongs, I suppose other numerals might have been as well.

I suppose it is just possible that the cutter (or the person who arranged the text for the cutter to follow) read the Bible of another confession, which might also affect the sequence and length of the Commandments on the stone. The Pedia of Wiki lists the versions and the order in which the Commandments are listed according to different faith groups (table 2). Pay no attention to the length of the texts quoted in the table; they’ve been truncated.

Table 2. Wikipedia Ten Commandments page. Table of numbering of commandments by confessional group. KJV follows group R. Catholics are group C. Lutherans are group L.

Our cutter was not a Catholic: his Commandment I is too short; he would seem not to have been a Lutheran, either. At any rate, I cannot make the pattern of paragraph lengths flick into sharp correspondence with the earlier Commandments by trying any of the alternate numbering schemes listed in table 2.

Which brings me to a question I think we need to ask before we go any further: who puts the entire text of the Ten Commandments onto his or her tombstone? Not even Charlton Heston did that. Aside from one example (with truncated texts) in a Holocaust memorial in the Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey, I find none of these at private gravesites on the interwebs.

Modern monument companies can bang out Ten-Commandment monuments effortlessly thanks to machine and laser cutting on granite (or even casting them in resin), rendering them commonplace and valueless as objects of art (figure 9).

Figure 9. Design Toscano Company, Ten Commandments garden monument, $99.95. “Celebrate the text that has withstood the test of time-the words Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Our faux stone tablet is both historic and inspiring, and makes a defining statement in your home or garden. Cast in quality designer resin exclusively for Design Toscano, the scripture is written in English on one side and an ancient Hebrew dialect on the other. Sand can be placed in the base for extra ballast. 21″Wx5″Dx18″H. 12 lbs.” I rely on a fair use justification for the use of this image which belongs to the Design Toscano Company.

The cheapness of the modern Ten Commandment monuments makes them irresistible to some religious partisans desiring to labor a point, such as Alabama’s luckless former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.

“Reason not the need,” says Lear, but consideration of Roy Moore may put us in mind of the de Tocqueville who noted that

“here and there, in the midst of American society, you meet with men, full of a fanatical and almost wild enthusiasm, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time, strange sects arise, which endeavour to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 2, Chapter XII, New York: Edward Walker Pub., 1847, p. 142-43.

If, as I suspect, we have a version of the Ten Commandments that has been altered in an idiosyncratic way we may well have someone using their grave to eternally grind a doctrinal axe. Certainly the cost of inscribing the entire Decalog on this stone was nontrivial even in nineteenth century labor costs; the monetary investment may be another indicator of a more personal investment.

Figure 10. Unknown monument with Ten Commandments. Rear face. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Strangely, there does not appear to be any place on the stone’s front where a name or other anagraphic data of the deceased was recorded. There are no evident companion stones which might inform this one. The rear of the stone, which faces away from the nearby road, appears to have two inscribed lines of text, no more legible than the front (figures 10-11).

Figure 11. Unknown monument with Ten Commandments. Rear face with inscription. Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Whether this stone was the product of a ravening religious fanatic or was merely a crazily overzealous version of the religious sentiments ubiquitous on nineteenth-century funerary monuments, it’s a valuable witness of American funerary art and is among the most astounding things I’ve ever seen in an American cemetery. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the cemetery literature, either, so its interest is matched by its rarity.

In case you wish to puzzle out the stone yourself, dear reader, the following gallery links to images of the front (figure 12) and back (figure 13) at full resolution with no enhancements.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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