The Best Epitaph
by Adrian Bean
It isn’t easy to choose the words for an epitaph. The message on a headstone will be read by generations to come, so you’ll want to get things just right. But how can anyone possibly sum up someone’s life and impact on other people in just a handful of words? Usually the wording tends to be mundane, but even a genuinely sincere “Sadly Missed” could seem to be a trite, throwaway line. Unremarkable. Forgettable…even if the person was far from that.
But sometimes well-chosen words make you want to know more about the deceased. So I’ll tell you about an “ordinary” man who is remembered at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. I never met him, but after talking with his wife, I think he must have been the kind of person you’d like as a relation, neighbour or friend. Let me tell you about John Gregory. Let me tell you about my “favourite” epitaph. And I hope you’ll agree with me that the words the family chose on his memorial hint at someone who wasn’t at all “ordinary.”
John (originally known to his family as “Jack”) came from Dewsbury, a gritty Yorkshire industrial town made famous in the 1960’s as the setting for the novel “A kind of Loving,” and more recently, the television programme “Educating Yorkshire.” Many of his family (including father, grandfather and brother) were coal miners, and the local landscape reflected the often ugly consequences of mining. When John was just twelve his father died, and as was normal at the time, his education finished at fourteen, so he had no real chance to better himself. He made light of the family’s financial situation, and loved his “poor boy’s holidays” in a tent…smoking. In the late 1950’s he was one of the last batch of men to go on National Service, and he became a Medical Orderly in the Royal Horse Guards, a time he thoroughly enjoyed, especially when he met his future wife, Joyce, a Bedfordian working as a Nanny in London. He went back to Yorkshire, but in those pre-mobile phone days they still managed to keep in touch by writing letters to each other every day. Joyce still has his letters, which will be buried with her.
They planned a two-year engagement, but when his mother died they married sooner, in 1960. They rented in Bedford, and for a time stayed with Joyce’s aunt to help save the deposit for a house more easily. They bought a three-bed semi in Putnoe for £2900, with a £300 deposit and a Council mortgage. He worked as a welder at BB and EA Ltd of Sandy, in the days when there was no such thing as sick pay or company pensions for most people. The “three day week” of the 1970’s badly affected local firms, with many redundancies, and he retrained as a Carer, working mainly at Tavistock Court. He was one of the first male Carers in Bedford, and it was a job to which he was ideally suited. He quickly became the person that clients preferred, and not surprisingly, often did far, far more than he was paid for; nice people are often taken advantage of.
When in his 50’s, he studied for “O Levels” at Mander College. He particularly liked English and Sociology. He loved to read, just soaked it up, discovering “The Handmaid’s Tale” long before it became well-known. He was always at the Library, showing how learning can be just as exciting to someone in later life as in youth. For her birthday, he would give Joyce a card with a poem he had written for her. He would cycle to Bedford cemetery, and after tending the graves of Joyce’s relations (including that of her brother, who John helped to look after) he would then sit on a bench and read, loving the quiet, peaceful surroundings. Normally it would be a novel or the Daily Mail…in those days it was still a proper newspaper. He was a great patriot, but as with most people who rarely voice political views, felt that the Iraq war was very very wrong.
He enjoyed simple pleasures, rejoicing in everything that Life gave him. He loved walking, cycling, humour such as “Rising Damp” and “Only Fools and Horses.” Although he still had a soft spot for Yorkshire (he could remember the name of all his classmates decades later) he loved Bedford’s river and parks and family holidays, especially in Sheringham. It took a lot to make him angry, preferring always to see the funny side of any situation, and naturally seeing the positive side of any set-back; if it was raining on holiday, then it was an ideal opportunity to find out what the local library had to offer! He had that rare talent which some lucky people have, to cheer other people up even in difficult circumstances. He played tennis, and the Riverside Tennis Club appreciated his selfless work in organising tournaments by putting his name on the Honours Board.
Especially he loved family life, having three children (including one who followed John’s lead and became a Paramedic) and six grandchildren, so it would have been a regret to him that his most recent descendants will never hear first-hand his story-telling about his life. His tales were legendary, such as when his teacher’s deliberate punch gave him a bloody nose. Or better still, the tale of how he and his schoolfriend Frank Boness were larking about throwing garden forks at each other like javelins when he accidentally pinned his friend’s hand into the ground. His Yorkshire accent faded after years in Bedford, but I suspect that it came back big time for those tales, told with a glint in his eye.
He wasn’t religious, and although a shock for someone slim, fit and otherwise in good health, accepted the diagnosis of liver cancer stoically, and in his last 18 months didn’t want people to know about his illness.
John was cremated, but the family had a bench placed in FHRC, with an epitaph for which they found hard to decide the wording, as there was so much they wanted to put in. For a long time I’ve wondered what he was like, this “quiet kind man, who told a good story, loved a joke, and lit up our lives,” and I hope you can agree with me that they chose the words well. His was a smaller world than those lived in by more “notable” people buried at FHRC, but he is remembered kindly, and had a big and positive impact on the lives of many other people…which is the best thing that a Good Man can ever hope to achieve in any time or place.
His bench, which was placed just below the Scots Soldiers Memorial, has deteriorated over the years and was recently taken away…and there’s a tale about this as well. After it was originally put in place it was stolen almost straight away, and when it was replaced it was put in the wrong place, as it should have been put near the path higher up the cemetery. A replacement bench with the original epitaph will be installed very soon, and I suspect that if there is a Heaven, then John is up there watching, ready to tell everyone there a good story about his memorial bench.
September 18, 2019
July 30, 2019