The stunning slate monuments of Fannie and Nellie Lafey with their unusually beautiful fonts, unorthodox typography, and sad story get a chef’s kiss and earn a Guide Michelin ‘Vaut le voyage’ rating for the IOOF Cemetery in Danville, Pennsylvania.

Charles and Ella Lafey had two daughters, Fannie and Nellie. Fannie was born in 1883, dying, unfortunately, in January 1888; Nellie, born in December 1888, died most unhappily in 1895. Inspection of the dates shows just how sad the story is.

Figure 1. Monument of Fannie Lafey. IOOF Cemetery, Danville, PA. Photo: author.

Fannie’s text:


Fannie’s (figure 1) is the first of the two stones, rather the thinner and taller of the two. The text has been skillfully and attractively ordinated upon both stones, but the font evolves from a more rough and ready form in 1888 to a quite beautiful, more regular form in 1895. The conceit is that the thin portions of the serifed letters have in fact been etiolated to nothing, as though we were seeing them on an extremely bright day. A capital ‘E’, for example, consists of a vertical hasta plus three separate bodies expressing the serifs of the cross strokes. The ‘H’ is fascinatingly broken vertically and symmetrically into two halves on both stones, though the cutter has the courage of his convictions to make his conceit more obvious on the 1895 stone. Were this style imposed on the ordinator by the use of a stencil, there would be no reason to break the ‘H’, and there would not be such a visible variation in quality between (for example) the aitches in Nellie’s ‘daugHter’ and ‘CHa’s.’

Despite technically skilled execution of the letters and numbers on both stones, Fannie’s stone exhibits four striking cases of reversed letters: capital ‘J’ in ‘July’, ‘Jan.’, and ‘Jesus’, and ‘3’ in ‘1883’. Three examples seem to prove our cutter systematically errs in his capital ‘J’. And once we know he has a shaky control of his letters, the reversal of the ‘3’ occasions no surprise.

Figure 2. Nellie Lafey monument. IOOF Cemetery, Danville, PA. Photo: author.

11 1895

Nellie’s 1895 stone (figure 2) is handsomer because it is broader and has a better finish. The letters are carved more crisply. The arc of ‘Daughter’ is not quite aligned correctly with that of ‘Nellie Lafey’. On Fannie’s stone the organizing principle was to have the ‘D’ of ‘Daughter’ immediately under the ‘F’ of ‘Fannie’ and have the two arcs stretch about equally across the stone. On Nellie’s it’s a little like the ordinator tried to cut both lines on arcs of circles with the same center. Nellie’s stone also has a stray apostrophe I can’t quite figure out in the character string CHA’S.’&; see that the second apostrophe is turned the wrong way for it to be a (mistaken) mark of a Saxon genitive: it would have to be connected with the ampersand. If the cutter had perfected his ‘J’ and ‘3’ by 1895, Nellie’s text does not prove it.

These are splendid examples of what I take to be vernacular stones, produced in the household (or within a close social circle around it) with respectable technical skill, and more love than literacy.

I suspect that our cutter heard “sleep” for “asleep” when his linguistic circle spoke and this comes across in the codas of both epitaphs. Fannie’s “Sleep In Jesus” could be an imperative, but on Nellie’s stone “Sleep, But Not Forever” can best be understood as “Asleep, . . . “. I used to see not the same but an analogous transcription of what people heard rather than read in the aisle contents sign of a supermarket in Omaha that read in part, “Bake beans.”

I don’t know the linguistics of north central Appalachia well enough to know if this phenomenon is a “thing” in these parts. Once we see that the cutter uses ‘Sleep’ for ‘Asleep’ we can see that the seeming imperative on Fannie’s stone is in fact a comment on her current condition. Also odd is the breaking up of ‘forever’ into ‘For Ever.’ The ordination and cutting, by the way, give every indication of being by the same hand(s), as you can see from the figures.

These stones are nothing short of wonderful in every respect. I’d love to have one like them for myself, replete with unorthodoxies.

Note: Here I use inverted commas to mark off strings of characters as such. Quotation marks signal words understood as such, as part of a text.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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