In the essay, Meditations in Westminster Abbey, the writer, Joseph Addison, talks about his sense of humour, which is of a serious kind, meaning thereby that he preferred serious humour. Whenever he was in a serious mood, he often used to walk up to Westminster Abbey, a gloomy, grave place, where exists an atmosphere of sadness and silence.
Addison visits the Westminster Abbey and amuses himself with the tombstones and inscriptions of the dead whenever he is in a serious mood. He notices that only the dates of birth and death are recorded without anything about the achievement of some men. He is reminded of persons mentioned in heroic poems who have high sounding names given to them for no other reason than that they were knocked on their head. He thinks that incomplete records on the tombstone are a sort of satire upon the departed persons.
During one of these visits to the abbey, Addison entertained himself with the digging of a grave. He sees pieces of bones mixed up with a kind of fresh mouldering earth. The dead bones and skulls of innumerable people lie under the pavement of that ancient cathedral. He considers how artificial distinctions of caste and colour are levelled up in the graveyard. Men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers are blended together in the same common mass.
After surveying the tombs, Addison examines the inscriptions very closely and finds many extravagant epitaphs. Some epitaphs are excessively modest. Some inscriptions are written in Greek and Hebrew. Again, there are some tombs that have no monuments. There are some tombs that are erected to the memory of persons whose bodies are buried elsewhere.
Addison is, however, delighted with several modern epitaphs. These have been written with refinement and do honour to the dead. Addison thinks that all inscriptions should be submitted to the perusal of learned men before being put to execution. Epitaphs should be true to the dead. They should represent the characters of the persons concerned faithfully. Sir cloudlessly Shovel’s monument gives Addison great offence. Sir Shovel is represented as a beau instead of a brave, rough English admiral that he was. The Dutch appear to him better than the English in this respect.
Addison derives the lesson of mortality from the graves. He is filled with melancholy thoughts and solemn recollection. He feels greatly enriched by his visit. Every emotion of envy dies in him. He sees the vanity of grieving for those we are soon to follow. He reflects with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When he sees the dates on the tombs of some that died yesterday and some six hundred years ago he thinks of that great day when we all shall be contemporaries, and make our appearances together.