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An epitaph is a short inscription found on a tombstone. While it is fairly universal to have the individual or individuals’ names along with dates of birth and death on a grave marker or headstone, others may also include a short saying or quote. It is usually these small inscriptions on a tombstone that are most commonly associated with the word epitaph.
Where does the word Epitaph come from?
The word epitaph is an anglicized version of the Greek word ἐπιτάφιος epitaphios “a funeral oration” from ἐπί epi “at, over” and τάφος taphos “tomb”. Merriam-Webster defines the word as:
1: an inscription on or at a tomb or a grave in memory of the one buried there
2: a brief statement commemorating or epitomizing a deceased person or something past
The History of the Epitaph
Epitaphs have a long history in Western culture. The Greeks, from which the word originally comes, put inscriptions on their tombs. Siminoides, a King of Sparta, honored the three hundred who fell at Thermapolyae with these words “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by that here, obedient to their law, we lie.” on his own tomb.
While Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, according to legend had these words inscribed on his own tomb outside Pasagardae: Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire and was king of Asia. Grudge me not, therefore, this monument.” These words were then read by Alexander the Great when he himself conquered the Persian Empire hundreds of years later.
The Roman, Laudatio Turiae, wrote the longest known epitaph in the 1st century BC at 180 lines long commemorating and celebrating his loyal wife. As Christianity took hold in the West during the Dark Ages and Medieval period epitaphs borrowed from the Bible, as well as the use of common or stock aphorisms such as “Here lies” or “Sacred to the memory of …”. These sayings can be commonly seen today in many old English churches and are the forebears to the well known “Rest in Peace” or “RIP”.
It was during the 19th century that epitaphs became more common and more individualized to the person who had died, including oftentimes being written by the deceased themselves, often with humor as a motif.
What are Common Themes for an Epitaph?
Most individuals put a biblical quote as an epitaph if they are Christian (see some examples below). Inscriptions from poems or famous literature are also common. It is important that the epitaph pays tribute to the deceased. If your loved one has made it clear what they want as an epitaph then you should honor those wishes. If they have not, you should use a quote or verse that was important to them or that has special relevance to them. Remember, you don’t have to have an inscription on the gravestone if you feel that there is nothing that fits. Nor should you feel particularly rushed, an inscription can always be added later.
How are Epitaphs Inscribed?
For more information on buying a headstone or gravemarker please read our article “Choosing a Headstone: What You Need to Know“, which explains the process of buying and installing a headstone for your loved one’s gravesite. Headstones are usually inscribed after you order one, either through the cemetery or through an online provider. You will submit name, dates, and any other information to the provider and then they will inscribe or etch the information on the stone before shipping it to the cemetery (most gravemarker providers will not ship to residential addresses). Because it usually takes longer for the headstone to be ordered, engraved, and shipped to the cemetery, most families wait until after the funeral to decide on the gravemarker.
Famous Epitaphs from History
“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last” – Rev. Martin Luther King
“Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!” – Virginia Wolfe
“To save your world you asked this man to die: Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?” – Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
“Murdered by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.” – Jesse James
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” – Robert Frost
“Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here: Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.” – William Shakespeare
Geologist and planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker’s epitaph was a small amount of his ashes that were launched into space and purposefully crashed into the South Pole of the Moon on July 31, 1999.
Famous Funny Epitaphs
“I told you I was sick.” – Dorothy Parker
“For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and Amended By the Author.” (In part) – Benjamin Franklin
That’s all, folks! – Mel Blanc (Voice of Porky the Pig)
“3.14159265358979323846264338327950288” – Ludolph van Ceulen
“In” – Jack Lemmon
Common Biblical Verses for Epitaphs
Blessed is the man who makes the lord his Trust – Pslams 40:4
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Psalms 23:1
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. – Matthew 5:8
Not my will, but yours, be done – Luke 22:42
Whoever believes in him may have eternal life. – John 3:15
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. – John 10:10
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. – John 11:25
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. – John 14:6
Beleive in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. – Acts 16:31
For by grace you have been saved through faith. – Ephesians 2:8
To live is Christ, and to die is gain. – Philippians 1:21
God is love. – John 4:16
Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. – Revelation 2:10
Absent in body, but present in spirit. – 1 Corinthians 5:3