An epitaph, or gravestone inscription, serves many purposes. Translated from the Greek to mean “upon a tomb,” epitaphs can identify the deceased, summarize an entire life or profession, or express tributes from mourners left behind. Memorable epitaphs can even bring a final smile or tear to those left behind.
Often a short and sweet phrase can say everything we need to say about the departed. Here are some examples of epitaphs commonly found on gravestones:
- Rest in Peace
- In Loving Memory
- Until We Meet Again
- A Life Measured in Memories
- Beloved Mother/Father, Wife/Husband, and Friend
- Gone But Never Forgotten
- A Lifetime of Laughter and Love
- Friend to Many, Stranger to None
Writers like to have the last word. The often beautiful epitaphs of literary authors and poets range from excerpts of their works to clever aphorisms written just for their gravestones.
Benjamin Franklin wrote his own epitaph at the age of 22, more than 60 years before his death.
The body of B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the Cover of an old Book.
Its Contents torn out.
And stripped of its Lettering and Gilding.
Lies here. Food for worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost.
For it will as he believ’d
appear once more
In a new and more elegant Edition
Corrected and improved
By the Author.
Robert Frost evoked the last line of his poem “The Lesson for Today” to summarize his life.
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
Emily Dickinson, prolific in life, only had these two words to offer as an epitaph:
Oscar Wilde, having lived in exile after serving time in prison for homosexual acts, used a line from his final work The Ballad of Reading Gaol on his gravestone.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
The last line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby inspired the author’s epitaph, and likely generations of readers following his death.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Graveyards are a popular setting in books and movies, making epitaphs effective plot devices. The message on a tombstone can move the story forward or sum up a character in one brief sentence.
The last, dreary image in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is Hester Prynne’s gravestone. The headstone is shared with Dimmesdale, the father of her out-of-wedlock child. Their epitaph serves as the novel’s final line.
(The tombstone) bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:—
“On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”
The concluding line describes a scarlet A against a black (sable) background. Even in death, the scarlet A defines Hester’s existence, marking her as an adulteress. However, the fact that she now shares a gravestone, and is even buried near Dimmesdale, symbolizes the fact that their sin is shared and enduring – as well as their love.
In the third part of the Back to the Future film trilogy (1990), Marty and Emmett “Doc” Brown unearth the DeLorean time machine from Oak Park Cemetery. In doing so, they make a grave discovery: Doc’s name on a headstone, complete with the circumstances surrounding his death.
Here lies / Emmett Brown / Date of Birth - Unknown / Died - September 7, 1885 / Shot in the back by Buford Tannen / Over a matter of 80 dollars
This turning point sets up the rest of the story and Marty’s time-traversing efforts to keep the epitaph from becoming true.
Royal, the titular character from The Royal Tenenbaums film (2001), is larger than life with stories that verge on the unbelievable. So, it’s no surprise that when his epitaph appears in the final act of the movie, it has no connection to reality.
Royal O’Reilly Tenenbaum / Died tragically rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship
The moment finalizes Royal’s characterization as well as his family’s eventual acceptance of his eccentric personality.
Though epitaphs are typically found etched into gravestones, writers can use them figuratively as well. Epitaph poems are short elegies that usually rhyme. The subjects of epitaph poems don’t have to be people.
Some famous examples of epitaph poetry include:
- “An Epitaph” by Walter de la Mare
- “Epitaph for a Romantic Woman” by Louise Bogan
- “Epitaph to a Dog” by Lord Byron
- “Upon a Child That Died” by Robert Herrick
- “Swift’s Epitaph” by William Butler Yeats
Epitaph poems can be a tribute to anything, like a way of life, a household item, or a celebrity. Their tone can be somber or humorous. Here are some examples of epitaph poems that do not feature deceased people as the subject.
Nothing will ever take your place
Since you melted in a fire
I’ll never forget the warm embrace
Of my malfunctioning hairdryer.
The first line makes the reader think that the poem will be sorrowful, setting them up for the joke that the speaker is mourning a broken hairdryer.
The summer’s come and you are gone;
I wish that I could miss you
But homework, I now bid you adieu
In your absence, I could kiss you.
A strong epitaph poem involves more story that can usually fit in a short elegy. Here, the speaker wishes they could be sad to be done with homework, but they’re just not upset at all.
To the bird laid in the street
The timing, you misread
Your earthworm wiggles past the car
But you, my dear, are dead.
An example of observational humor, this poem expresses a tribute to a bird in the street. It brings in the theme of death, but also a bit of humor with the bad timing of the bird.
Funny epitaphs can be a silly way to joke about a serious topic. Check out this list of funny epitaphs that includes clever one-liners, rhyming epitaph poetry, and epitaph examples from real-life gravestones that demonstrate who really gets the last laugh.