It was distressing for an acquaintance to happen upon the gravestone of Msgr. Francis J. Weber, who, the last she knew, was alive and well and working at San Fernando Mission.
The grave marker on a grassy knoll at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City bears Weber’s name and these data:
“Born 1933, Ordained 1959. Priest-Archivist-Historian.”
The nun who telephoned Weber was pleasantly surprised to learn that he is alive, but she was confused.
“You didn’t see a death date, did you?” Weber teased.
The wry denizen of San Fernando Mission insists he’s not trying to learn what people really think of him before he dies.
He just wanted to write his own epitaph.
“Besides an obituary in the local newspaper, about the only monument left on planet Earth by the great majority of people is a flat, rectangular gravestone marking the location of their burial,” Weber said. At 61, Weber, who celebrates Masses daily at the mission and writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles archdiocesan newspaper, hardly has one foot in the grave.
Ever since he worked summers as a gravedigger in Los Angeles to finance his education in the 1950s, Weber has been drawn to tombstones in older communities around the country and abroad.
“You can learn a lot about the history of an area just by reading the tombstones,” he said.
As a hobby, Weber began collecting the more interesting epitaphs, especially those marking the decedent’s passing with wit and whimsy.
Boot Hill in Tombstone, Ariz., is famous for its clever grave markers. One of Weber’s favorites is:
Here lies Lester Moore.
Four slugs from a .44.
No Les. No Moore.
The cause of death inspired other epitaphs as well, Weber said. One stone in Schenectady, N.Y., said: He got a fish-bone in his throat, And then he sang an angel’s note.
In Medway, Mass., an epitaph read:
Under this stone, this piece of clay
Lies Uncle Peter Daniels
Who too early in the month of May
Took off his winter flannels
Anne Hopewell was remembered thusly in Enosburg, Vt.:
Here lies the body of beloved Anna
to death by a fresh banana
It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low
But the skin of the thing that made her go.
But the pronouncement on a gravestone could also give critics their final shot, Weber said. For instance, a granite slab in Hatfield, Mass., read:
Beneath this stone a lump of clay
Lies Arabella Young
Who on the 21st of May
Began to hold her tongue.
In the churchyard in Woolwich, England, Weber said, “is a very beautifully carved marker” with a crushing farewell:
Sacred to the memory of Major James Brush, Royal Artillery, who was killed by the accidental discharge of a pistol by his orderly, 14th April, 1831. Well done, good and faithful servant.
The comments sometimes pertained to the community as much as to the person in the grave, Weber said--such as one he found in Aberdeen, Scotland:
Here lies the bones of Elizabeth Charlotte
Born a virgin, died a harlot
She was a virgin at seventeen
A remarkable thing in Aberdeen.
The priest said that today’s smaller grave markers have made epitaphs a thing of the past.
“I haven’t seen any epitaphs on tombstones that date within the last 50 or 60 years,” Weber said. “They list mostly the birth and death dates, and maybe the names of the mother and father.”
Nevertheless, he said, leaving the marker’s wording to relatives or others can result in inaccurate or inappropriate inscriptions.
Weber, interviewed as he stood over his grave, admitted that his small marker has little room to squeeze in any more information.
“Nobody cares when you died,” he said, perhaps letting modesty contradict his calling as an archivist-historian.
Asked what old-style epitaph he might chose if space permitted, Weber said he would probably quote Father Junipero Serra, the mission pioneer:
In California is my life and there,
God willing, I hope to die.
Sorry, father. Serra’s quote doesn’t match the whimsy of epitaphs you love so much. How about something on the order of:
Here lies a history-loving priest
Roamed graveyards often , to say the least
Wrote his own marker, hardly a wonder
Father gets last word while six feet under.