What is an Epitaph?

Lester Moore tombstone
The famous epitaph on Lester Moore's gravemarker attracts tourists to Tombstone, Arizona's Boothill Cemetery more than 125 years after Moore's death. Photo © Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

An epitaph is an inscription on a cemetery headstone, monument or gravemarker written in prose or verse form that commemorates the deceased. (The standard vital statistics inscribed on tombstones, e.g., the deceased's name, birth- and death dates, etc., do not constitute an epitaph.)

Whether selected by the person who died or a family member, friend or other surviving loved one, epitaphs can range from well known quotes and sayings to unique-but-meaningful expressions that convey something about the deceased's life, personality, point-of-view, etc.

In addition, epitaphs can prove serious to hilarious -- the choice of which also expresses volumes about the deceased.

Famous Epitaphs:
Below are several examples of famous epitaphs from history that display their range, from sardonic to serious and from introspective to illuminating about the world at large. (The years shown indicate when the individual died.)

Merv Griffin, television host, 2007
I will not be right back
After this message

John Keats, English poet, 1821
This Grave
contains all that was Mortal
of a
on his Death Bed,
In the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired
these Words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone:
"Here lies One
Whose name was writ in Water."

Lester Moore*, Wells Fargo station agent, 1880s
Lester Moore
Four Slugs
From a 44
No Les
No More

* Moore's epitaph is shown in the photograph above.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author, 1894
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Word Origin:
The modern English word epitaph arose around the 1350s and derives, ultimately, from the Greek term epitaphios meaning "words spoken on the occasion of a funeral" (from epi meaning "at, over," and taphos meaning "tomb, funeral rites").

Sometimes, people use the general terms "inscription," "sentiment" or "quotation" to refer to an epitaph on a cemetery headstone, monument or gravemarker.

In addition, the term "epigram" is commonly confused with epitaph, but unless it appears on a headstone, monument or gravemarker, such clever witticisms do not constitute an epitaph.

Additional Reading:
Last Words of Famous Writers
5 Tips for Writing a Successful Eulogy

"epitaph (noun)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 26, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=epitaph

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