Graveyards are not everyone’s favorite haunt. And, I must say at the outset, I don’t spend the bulk of my time in them. Yet ever since visiting Melrose Abbey and Greyfriars Kirk during my student days in Scotland, I’ve been fascinated with tombstones and their inscriptions.

Part of my interest has to do with the stories tombstones tell about the times, whether of events that transpired or of social history. One cannot help being impressed by the depth of Christian conviction that some of the inscriptions express, by the moralistic admonitions that some give, and by the simple tomfoolery that appears at times as well. A tombstone is often the last attempt of a person to make a statement, and they are frequently, for that reason, quite revealing.

What interests me most about tombstones and their inscriptions, however, is what they unintentionally say about the people who wrote them. I have two favorites. The first is from a churchyard in a small village north of Zurich, Switzerland, where I was looking for branches of my own family tree. The Swiss have a habit of burying their dead within parish churchyards in neat, tidy rows according to date of death and not necessarily in family plots. In this particular graveyard is a rather recent grave of a 34-year-old lady with only one word on its headstone: Warum? (“Why?”). Four graves beyond this lady, with the date of death being given as eight months later, is the grave of a 74-year-old man with the following answer on its headstone: Mitt Gott ist keine Warum! (“With God there is no questioning ‘Why’!”). One can only wonder what these two people were like, the circumstances of their deaths, and the debate that went on within the ...

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