This Man’s Tombstone Features a Cryptic Crossword Puzzle—Can You Solve It?

Eighty years before the first crossword puzzle, this tombstone spun word nerds' heads.

This Man’s Tombstone Features a Cryptic Crossword Puzzle—Can You Solve It?
Courtesy Robert Cutts
This Man’s Tombstone Features a Cryptic Crossword Puzzle—Can You Solve It?

Little is remembered about the man John Renie.

He was born in Monmouthshire, Wales in 1799, died there in 1832, and in the meanwhile painted houses, wed a woman, and sired two sons.

You can learn all of this easily enough by glancing at his tombstone, which stands in the graveyard alongside St. Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth. One thing you can’t learn so easily from the grave marker: John Renie’s name.

Where John’s name should be on his epitaph is, instead, a 285-letter word puzzle. Renie is said to have designed this tombstone himself in his final years, so why does it appear that his name isn’t even on it? Take a closer look, and the secret should reveal itself.

It won’t take you long to notice that, while an array of capital Js and Rs scatter throughout the puzzle in a diamond shape, there is only one single capital H smack dab in the center. Start at that middle square, then read in any direction. Feel free to read a few letters horizontally, then let your eye wander vertically. No matter which path you follow, the message should be clear. Radiating out from the center block in every direction, the phrase “Here lies John Renie” appears in nearly 46,000 separate, Tetris-like combinations.

The stone bedevils the mind to look at—and maybe that’s the point. According to Lionel Fanthorpe, a British priest and author, Renie may have scrambled his name in belief of an old superstition that the devil could not take him if the devil could not determine his name. Was this giant stone acrostic Renie’s ticket to heaven? Maybe—but we’d like to submit an alternate explanation: perhaps the man was just really into word games. (And as these famous last words remind us, the end is probably the best time to be playful.)

Sadly, what may look like an Indiana Jones-level cypher actually protects no treasure—not even the body of John Renie himself. The tomb was moved closer to the church sometime after Renie’s burial, perhaps in order to better catch the eyes of curious passers-by, who still puzzle over the stone on a near daily basis. For lovers of mystery, history, and games of language, the puzzle itself is the prize.

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