Dr Johnson remarked that "In lapidary descriptions a man is not upon oath".
But how do you frame an epitaph when the life of the deceased has been marked by scandal?
Dr John St John Long (1793-1834) lies beneath a tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery that is a masterpiece of lending dignity to a remarkable man who is, perhaps, remarkable for unfortunate reasons.
Long is usually described as a quack doctor. In fact he practised from a Harley Street surgery, though he "had not been regularly educated as a surgeon". On at least two occasions the deaths of his patients led to manslaughter charges: in the first instance he was fined £250; on the second, though the coroner's jury returned a manslaughter verdict "on the ground of gross ignorance, and on other considerations", Long was exonerated at the Old Bailey and "several ladies, elegantly dressed, remained with the prisoner in the dock throughout the day, to whom this verdict appeared to give great satisfaction".
Nevertheless, he received glowing testimonials from patients who felt they had benefitted from his treatments – among them the Countess of Buckingham and the radical politician, Sir Francis Burdett, who recommended Long to the Marquess of Anglesey for a treatment for tic doloureux.
His tomb at Kensal Green carries a lengthy and delicately poised inscription:
It is the fate of most men to have many enemies, and few friends. This monumental pile is not intended to mark the career but to shew how much its inhabitant was respected by those who knew his worth and the benefits derived from his remedial discovery. He is now at rest and far beyond the praises or censures of this world.
Stranger as you respect the receptacle for the dead as one of many who must rest here, hear the name of John St John Long without comment.
Most commentators quote only the final paragraph – which has a more terse effect.
Of the "benefits derived from his remedial discovery" nothing further was heard after Long's death.
For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.
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