Delete, search, replace, revise, revise, revise—changes and corrections are so easy with our electronic tools. But what if your words were literally cast in stone and you wanted to change them?
Cemeteries are sometimes called “gardens of stone” and the profusion of flower carvings on Victorian tombstones adds to the effect. But cemeteries also offer unique insights into the people who chose the stones and their inscriptions. Matthew Baillie-Begbie, BC’s notorious “hanging judge” (an undeserved epithet), wanted a simple wooden cross with the inscription “Lord be merciful to me a sinner.” He got the epitaph he wanted, but the family felt only a grand granite cross would suit BC’s first chief justice. And we are glad they did—a wooden cross would have been long gone by now.
Tucked away in another part of Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery is a simple tablet with the epitaph “We were real chums”—words of friendship and deep love. Margaret Caldwell died in 1912 at age 47; her husband chose the inscription.
These epitaphs are concise and complete, but one large stone elsewhere in the cemetery testifies to a post-carving change of heart. It may be one of the few stones anywhere that displays editorial markup.
John Dean had his marker erected 10 years before he died. He chose this lovely epitaph (with one little spelling error): “It is a rotten world. It’s saving grace is the artlessness of the young and the wonders of the sky.” Every few years, he’d have his photo taken next to the marker in a “John Dean cheats death again” pose. Finally, at age 92, he was laid to rest beneath his stone. In the meantime, however, Dean butted heads with municipal government and unsuccessfully ran for mayor—three times. Clearly wanting to make a statement that would stand the test of time, he edited his epitaph to reflect his bitter opinion of politicians: “It is a rotten world [caret] artful politicians are its bane. It’s saving grace is the artlessness of the young and the wonders of the sky.” So not only is it possible to edit a tombstone—it’s also possible to use it for editorializing!
Despite the cranky tone of the added words, John Dean was by all accounts a cheerful, friendly man with a lively sense of humour. Before his death, he donated land that became beautiful John Dean Park, just north of Victoria.