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Paying Your (Dis)Respects: Memorials that Offend

Free your body and soul,

Unfold your powerful wings,

Climb up the highest mountain . . .

It’s the first three lines of a beautiful poem honoring the memory of a loved one.  What could be offensive about that?

Actually, it’s the first three letters of a four-letter word rarely uttered in loving memory—much less permanently inscribed on a tombstone. 

But that’s how the inscription of John Laird McCaffery’s tombstone begins.  According to the engraver (who has preferred to remain anonymous), “[t]his guy's ex-wife and mistress came in together and ordered the stone. They said the message represented him.”  The inscription continues:

Kick your feet up in the air,

You may now live forever,

Or return to this Earth,

Unless you feel good where you are.

The engraver didn’t notice the censor-worthy sentiment until after it was already inscribed; “I'm looking at it and I’m like, ‘Wow,’” he said. 

That’s been the general reaction since the stone was first place in Montreal’s Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges in 1995.  Most cemeteries—including Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges—have rules prohibiting offensive materials.  While the profane poetry on McCaffery’s tombstone would be “offensive” almost anywhere, what some cemeteries have recently deemed offensive seem hard to defend.

As Professor Tanya Marsh wrote in October, a Cincinnati cemetery ordered the removal of two SpongeBob Squarepants memorials from the grave of a young veteran. 

In Virginia, Salem United Methodist Church deemed a tombstone within its cemetery to be offensive because it bore a picture of the deceased “playing cards and drinking alcohol with a friend.”  The church ordered that the picture, or the entire stone, be removed. 

A Colorado cemetery refused to allow a tombstone bearing an Ichthys symbol around the word “Jesus.”  According to director of the city-owned cemetery, the Ichthys symbol—commonly known as the “Jesus fish”—was permitted, but the word “‘Jesus’ was offensive to others who would come to the cemetery.”  Eventually, the cemetery permitted the tombstone, Jesus, fish, and all. 

A Massachusetts cemetery refused to approve a headstone design because it was inscribed with lyrics to song written by the decedent, which included profanity.  The rapper’s other memorial, a “1” composed of rocks and mulch on his plot in honor of his nickname “Uno,” was also ordered to be removed. 

Meanwhile, McCaffery’s expletive epitaph still stands after almost 20 years of offending (and, admittedly, amusing) most who see it.  While these ladies’ foul-mouthed farewell is set in stone, the issue of offensive materials in cemeteries remains.  

Catherine Hammack

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