The epitaphs on some of the tombstones in Delhi are not without humour and poetry.

James Cummins was a Telegraph master in Delhi who died after he was struck by lightning in the 19th Century. He is buried in the cemetery named after Gen. Nicholson and his tombstone says that he “left behind a wife and child bewailing his loss”. If one wanders further one comes across this epitaph: “Passing Stranger call this not/ A place of dreary gloom/ I love to linger near this spot/ It is my beloved mother’s tomb”. Just at the entrance of the cemetery is a small marble tablet mourning a six-month-old child whose death had devastated its parents. Nicholson, who lies buried nearby, has been eulogized both in English and Urdu. In the St. James’ churchyard are buried the wife and five daughters of George Beresford, Manager of the Delhi Bank, who were killed on 11 May, 1857 in Chandni Chowk. The rebel sepoys had attacked the bank building and though Beresford put up a stout resistance, it was his wife who proved more heroic, killing two of her attackers with a seized spear before falling down fatally injured.

In Lothian Road Cemetery is the grave of a merchant who married four times and “buried three wives, but the fourth did for him!” There are some pithy epitaphs in the Paharganj, Prithviraj Road and Rajpur Road cemeteries too. In Paharganj is a tomb which was in the news some time ago as it vibrated for five minutes when the priest blessed it on All Souls’ Day. There is, or used to be, one tombstone that had the words “Damn You” written on it. Whether it was meant to damn the visitor or the ones who had buried the person is not known.

The oldest British-time tombs are, of course, in Kolkata, including that of Rose Alymer, who died young and on whom Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), wrote these lines: “Ah, what avails the sceptred race! / Ah, what the form divine! / What every virtue, every grace! Rosy Aylmer, all were thine”. Some of the epitaphs in Delhi are about just as old and no less memorable because of the poetic strain in them. The new graves in Burhari and Dwarka however are “kutcha” with no epitaphs.

According to E.A.H. Blunt, ICS, writing in 1911, the old epitaphs were not without some unconscious humour, like a man who died “Craving a large widow and family to mourn his loss”. Another one proclaims, “Good attendance was applied, Physicians were in vain”. Blunt goes on to say, “If pigmies must squabble about a dead giant, they should at least have the decency not to do so over a giant’s grave” (this was said in connection with a hero of 1857). Incidentally, an unlikely hero was “a gallant French circus master who went out to fight with Anglo-Indian volunteers that year for the “honour of the alliance”. Capt (later Lt-Col) W. R. Pogan, author of the “History of the Bundelas” (1787-1843), was noted for both his learning and eccentricity. As per his wish, he was buried on a roadside within sound of bugles” (on the far side of the infantry parade ground) where young buglers came for practice every day.

Col Skinner, who is buried in the church built by him at Kashmere Gate, has this epitaph: “Here rest the/Remains of the late/Colonel James Skinner G.B./Who departed this life/ At Hansi/ 4th December 1841 / The body was disinterred / Removed from Hansi and buried under / This on the 19th January, 1842”. Sixty-three gun salutes were fired, “denoting the number of years of the deceased”. It was further stated that “None of the emperors was ever brought into Delhee in such state as Secunder Sahib” (as he was known). Earlier, the Colonel had a beautiful marble tomb constructed for William Fraser, assassinated British Resident, with this tribute: “So you see by the blessing of God, I have served Him and my friend too, whose memory and love remain firm in my old heart. In him I have lost the best friend I had in the world …. and my friendship with the world ends with him.”

More poignant is this Urdu epitaph on a young wife: “Na aiye raas chaman ko/Woh naubahar hoon main/ Kisi ke aish do-roza/ ki yaadgar hoon main” (I’m the blossom which did not suit the garden, a reminder of someone’s two days of happiness)! The Muse similarly wept for John Drake, an indigo merchant killed in a Holi riot in 1637.