I choose as my text for today the monument erected in Blandford Cemetery by the widow of Mr. John T. Cardwell. It’s a simple gray marble tablet with some very low-relief designs framing the central message.

Figure 1. Cardwell monument, 1907. Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, VA. Photo: author.

In memory of
My Husband
JOHN T. CARDWELL
Born
Feb. 22, 1840.
Departed this life
Feb. 10, 1907.

A precious one from me has gone,
The voice I loved is stilled;
The place made vacant in my home
Can never more be filled.
God in His wisdom has recalled
The boon his love had given;
Though the body slumbers here,
The soul is safe in Heaven.

The odd-numbered iambic tetrameters rise, and the even-numbered trimeters sink with simple rhythm and rhymes. One can tell it’s not a stray quote from Tennyson because one finds these same verses altered at will, something one would not expect people to do with a famous poet’s literary verse. One also finds these verses over and over next to one another in the same cemetery, as with the three examples in Belen Cemetery in Marks, Mississippi.

In First Lobo Cemetery in Komoka, Ontario, we find a version on the tombstone of Annie E. Challoner (1888) preferring to face an unpleasant fact by having ‘moulders’ over the ‘slumbers’ we saw above.

A precious one from me has gone,
A voice I loved is still,
A place is vacant in my home
Which never can be filled.
God in his wisdom has recalled
The boon his love had given;
And though the body moulders here
The soul is safe in heaven.

And over the 1853 grave of Maria Edwards in the same cemetery we have (with dizzying metrical folly meant to break our spirit):

God in his wisdom has called
The precious boon his love has given;
And though the casket moulders here
The gem is sparkling now in heaven.

I could go on, but you get the point: these are conventional verses that were adapted as need required and sentiment willed. Yet before we write them off as meaningless pieties urged upon the grieving by salesmen, we should recall the ‘only a topos‘ fallacy. I’ll quote from Professor Peter Rhodes, who employed the concept in an argument about the veracity of battle-speeches by ancient generals reported by ancient historians:

Before I go any further, I should like to expose what I call the ‘only a topos‘ fallacy. This is the fallacy of supposing that, once you have decided that a passage is a topos, a conventional remark, you can dismiss it from further consideration and need never ask whether the remark is true. At the beginning of my lecture I said, and asked people to remember that I had said, that it was a great honour and pleasure to have been invited to visit the place in which it was delivered and to address my audience. That is an extremely well-known topos of visiting lecturers: audiences have heard it many times. Now it may be that some speakers visiting some universities have been hypocrites, and in spite of what they have said have not been honoured and pleased by their invitation; but I should guess that most of them have been honoured and pleased, and it is certainly true that I have been honoured and pleased. The fact that a passage is a topos, that is says what is conventionally said in a particular situation and perhaps expresses it in a conventional way, does not exclude the possibility that it is an authentic report, or that what is stated is true. Topoi have always been used, in all kinds of writing; but detecting topoi is not enough in deciding whether we should believe what we read.

Peter Rhodes, “In Defense of Greek Historians,” Greece and Rome 41.2 (1994) pp. 156-171

Put another way, when Mrs. Cardwell was shown the book of sayings people commonly placed on tombstones, and when she chose the one she did, we cannot just say that she put her finger down on one with her eyes effectively closed, as though in a lottery. She may have chosen—probably did choose—the one that suited her feelings at the time.

This doesn’t get her a free pass for putting doggerel onto her husband’s stone; but it does mean we must back off and abandon a presumption that she was just filling up space or that she was a pliable customer. It’s also worth remembering that culturally insecure people often flee to the safe haven of authority. If the salesman told her it was right to put poetry onto a tombstone, or if she came to the task of selecting a marker with that predisposition, she would have been reassured to choose verse that was ‘tried and true,’ and had been chosen by many respectable people before.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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