I. What is an Epitaph?
An epitaph is a short statement about a deceased person, often carved on his/her tombstone. Epitaphs can be poetic, sometimes written by poets or authors themselves before dying. The phrase epitaph comes from the Greek phrase epitaphios meaning “funeral oration.”
II. Examples of Epitaphs
Epitaphs can speak of the live of the deceased, of spirituality and mortality, or of something else entirely. Here are a few common examples of epitaphs:
Beloved mother and wife
This epitaph is short and simple, highlighting what many women consider most important about their lives: family.
Death is the golden key that opens the palace of Eternity.
This epitaph was provided by John Milton, the epic poet of Paradise Lost.
Always in our hearts
This last epitaph is written by those who are grieving the deceased.
III. The Importance of Using Epitaphs
Epitaphs provide those who have passed with a poetic or memorable inscription for those who visit the deceased to remember them by. For those who choose their own epitaphs, they are a way of sending one final and lasting message. For those who create epitaphs for the deceased, they are a way of remembering what was most important about the deceased. Epitaphs are small, often personal historical documents. Oftentimes they emphasize the importance of seizing the day, as approaching mortality is an absolute reality for all of us.
IV. Examples of Epitaphs in Literature
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
This brief but telling epitaph can be found on Robert Frost’s grave, an excerpt from his poem “The Lesson for Today.”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Scott Fitzgerald’s epitaph immortalizes the final line of his novel The Great Gatsby.
Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’
Edgar Allan Poe’s epitaph, albeit brief, still conveys his chilling fascination with death in reference to his poem “The Raven.”
V. Examples of Epitaphs in Pop Culture
Pop culture is also a rich source for epitaphs, as epitaphs of the famous are some of the most interesting. They range from serious and honorable to witty and surprising:
If you live life right
death is a joke
as far as fear is concerned
According to the classic children’s show host Will Rogers, death is not to be feared.
That’s all, folks!
He lies here, somewhere.
Werner Heisenberg’s epitaph is at once intelligent and humorous, referencing his Uncertainty Principle, which purports that the position and momentum of a particle cannot be known simultaneously.
VI. Related Terms
Epitaphs are not the only ways of commemorating a remarkable person. Here are a few similar devices:
Epithet sounds similar to epitaph, and its definition has some overlap. An epithet is a special nickname used in place of one’s actual name. Epithets oftentimes appear as epitaphs, as our nicknames are strong ways of remembering us. Here is an example of epithet versus epitaph:
This is an epithet for the famous poet and playwright William Shakespeare. His epitaph, on the other hand, is more involved:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Although “The Bard” could be an epitaph, Shakespeare’s actual epitaph focuses on warning the living against moving his corpse rather than his poetic achievements!
Just as epithets could be found in the form of epitaphs, elegies, too, are sometimes used as epitaphs. Elegies are serious poems, typically on the subject of mourning the deceased. One example of an elegiac poem is Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” Here is an excerpt:
Nor, what may count itself as blest,
The heart that never plighted troth
But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;
Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
A common epitaph may be taken from this excerpt:
It is better to have loved and lost
than never to have loved at all.
Although epithets and elegies have a wider variety of uses, they may both appear as epitaphs.
VII. In Closing
The written word in all forms serves to memorialize what is important to the writer, and oftentimes, this memorialization is a way of combatting mortality. We record what we can before we go, and then we’re gone. Epitaphs allow us to remember those who have passed in their own words and in the words of those left behind as well.