Epitaphs: Definition, Famous Examples & How to Write One

Updated

You might think epitaphs are only reserved for royalty or famous people. It’s true that epitaphs are usually only used when a deceased person will be buried or honored with a physical monument or memorial. But did you know that epitaphs can technically apply to online memorials, too?

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Whether you’re planning a funeral or just curious, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about epitaphs. Let’s go over exactly what they are, what differentiates them from other funeral writings, and how to write one. We’ll also go over some famous epitaph examples.  

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What’s an Epitaph? 

An epitaph is an engraving or an inscription of a verse, poem, or other written work on a headstone, gravestone, monument, or memorial. Epitaphs are meant to tell a story about the deceased person or honor him or her in some way.

They’re usually engraved into some sort of stone or marble, though they can also be found on other materials. Epitaphs may range in length from a few words to several paragraphs or stanzas. They can include vague or intimate details of a person’s life and death, or they may feature a quote from the deceased person.

Epitaph vs. eulogy vs. elegy vs. epithet

Now that you think about it, does it the word “epitaph” seem similar to other “E” words you’ve heard? Eulogy? Elegy? Epithet? Confusing, huh? All of these words relate to funerals and the dead in some way but there are some variances. Here’s the scoop:

  • Epitaph: As discussed, an epitaph is an engraving or an inscription of a verse, poem, or other written work on a headstone, gravestone, monument, or memorial. Epitaphs are meant to tell a story about the deceased person or honor him or her in some way.
  • Eulogy: A eulogy is a speech or piece of writing to praise or honor someone, typically a person who has recently passed away. Learn more about how to start a eulogy or how to write an unforgettable eulogy.  
  • Elegy: An elegy, on the other hand, has almost the opposite tone of a eulogy. Eulogies praise and honor a deceased person, but an elegy is a poem or song that signifies grief for the deceased. A traditional elegy is often sorrowful or remorseful. 
  • Epithet: An epithet, or nickname, can be a component of any of the above things. An epithet is an adjective or a short descriptive phrase to express a quality or characteristic of a person or thing mentioned. 

Epitaph etymology

Epitaphs dated as far back as 10 BCE or earlier. The Grecian Seikilos Epitaph, from the first century A.D., has the oldest song in the world inscribed on it.

The word “epitaph” in itself comes from late Middle English, approximately in the 14th century. Prior, epitaphe was the French origin, and epitaphion, or “funeral oration,” which comes from Latin and Greek languages. Furthermore, epi means “upon” and taphos means “tomb.” 

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How to Write an Epitaph

Do you doubt your ability to actually write an epitaph? Though epitaphs are a very specific piece of writing, the process for writing an epitaph is similar to the writing process for just about everything else.

And as you’ll see below, epitaphs can offer a variety of tones and exist in a variety of lengths and still be impactful.

Do some research

Though we provide some examples of famous epitaphs for a variety of moods and occasions, do some research on your own.

What sorts of cultural or religious themes are significant to you? To the deceased person? Did he or she have any personal mantras or heroes? You may not need to be limited to Google searches. Ask other close friends and family members of your deceased loved one for ideas. Check out a variety of headstone quotes and sayings on Cake. 

Write 

Now that you have all of those glittering examples in your mind, it’s time to write a few drafts. You may nail it on the first attempt, or you may need many attempts to get it just right.

Make sure you have all of the materials you need to have a successful writing session, whether you choose a laptop or pen and paper to write it on. You may consider writing some sort of poem, like a “gone too soon” poem, or you may choose to write something with a different tone.

Reflect

Once you have a draft or a few drafts written, walk away. Give yourself some time to focus on other things so you can come back with fresh eyes. You can even take a few days off from writing so you can evaluate whether the epitaph will stand the test of time.

Does it still honor your loved one in the way you want to? Is it too short? Too long? Would it make sense to a stranger? Or do you want it to be more cryptic? This might be a good time to share your epitaph draft with others to get their feedback as well. 

Write Your final draft

After reflecting for some time and perhaps editing a bit, you’re ready to write your final draft. Take any criticism you’ve received from other friends and family members seriously.

Some things aren’t set in stone, but epitaphs are. You can order a revision but you may not want to deal with the bill! 

Decide on the headstone, gravestone, etc. 

Writing your final draft brings us to the final step in writing an epitaph — choosing the surface it will go on. What type of burial will the deceased person receive?

This will determine whether you look at headstones, gravestones, a monument, or a memorial. Monuments and memorials are practical if your loved one isn’t being buried traditionally or buried naturally but you still want to be able to visit a physical marker.

This is also when you can consider what type of material you’d like to work with. You can choose more traditional stone or something a bit more elaborate, like marble. 

Famous Epitaph Examples

Since epitaphs have such a long, rich history, there are plenty of famous examples with a variety of tones. Some are brief, some are long, some are happy, and some are sad. It all depends on the person being honored as well as the people who wrote it. Let the following serve as inspiration for any epitaph you decide to write.

You’ll see that they can truly take on a wide variety of forms. Don’t limit yourself to flowery language if it doesn’t feel natural. If the deceased person had a funny or interesting outlook on death, you can easily make his or her epitaph as simple as that. 

Funny epitaph examples

1. H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

“Goddamn you all: I told you so.”

2. A Maid of Queen Elizabeth (early 17th century)

Here lies, the Lord have mercy upon her,
One of her Majesty's maids of honour:
She was both young, slender, and pretty,
She died a maid, the more the pity.

3. Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

“Excuse my dust.”

Sad epitaph examples

1. Bezaleel Shaw (6 months old, dates unknown)

My life in infant Days was Spent
While to my parents I was lent
One smiling Look to them I gave
And then descended to the grave.

2. Olivia Susan Clemens (1866-1890) 

[Daughter of Mark Twain]

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light —
Good-night, dear heart, good-night, good-night.

3. Anne de Gaulle (1928-1948)

[Daughter of Charles de Gaulle]

"Now she is like all others.”

Beautiful epitaph examples

1. John Donne (1572-1631)

Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne's body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.

2. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Free at last, Free at last
Thank God Almighty
I'm Free at last.

3. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (1896-1940; 1900-1948)

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Epitaphs Are a Message to the World (Or Your World) 

Are you feeling pressure to write the perfect epitaph? Remember that the epitaph you write should honor the deceased person in a way that best fits him or her. Epitaphs can serve as a message to the world, but as long as they bring peace to your family or loved ones, that’s all that really matters.


Sources

  1. Campbell, Elizabeth and Matthew Roller. “Latin Funeral Inscriptions Cosconia Calityche.” Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/latin-funerary-inscriptions/epitaphs-for-women/cosconia-calityche/
  2. Andrews, Evan. “What is the oldest known piece of music?” History. Updated 1 Sept., 2018. www.history.com/news/what-is-the-oldest-known-piece-of-music
  3. “Famous Literary and Historical Epitaphs.” Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, Carson-Newman University. web.cn.edu/kwheeler/epitaphs.html
  4. “Epitaphs Tell Tales in New England’s Graveyards.” New England Historical Society. www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/epitaphs-tell-tales-new-englands-graveyards/
  5. Eisele, Kitty. “'Gatsby' Author Fitzgerald Rests In A D.C. Suburb.” NPR. 7 Sept., 2012. www.npr.org/2012/09/07/160381786/gatsby-author-fitzgerald-rests-in-a-d-c-suburb 

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