Where Does R.I.P. Come From?

R.I.P. meant something much different long ago

RIP on gate
"R.I.P." is commonly found in cemeteries, such as above this gate leading into Cowra Cemetery in New South Wales, Australia. Photo © Philip Quirk/Photo Library/Getty Images

One cannot help but run across the ubiquitous acronym "R.I.P." these days, particularly in obituaries, cemeteries or, especially, during the season of Halloween, when these three letters appear on countless decorative tombstones, toys, candies and other holiday items. Despite its familiarity, however, this term originally meant something much different than most people realize today. This article explores the origin and meaning of the acronym R.I.P.

and why we use it on tombstones and gravemarkers.

If asked today, most people would probably state that the acronym R.I.P. stands for "Rest in peace" and that it refers to the body/corpse of the deceased. After all, this is the commonly perceived English translation of the original Latin phrase requiescat in pace -- which also happens to consist of three words and all in the same order as the modern acronym R.I.P.

While the Latin word "pace" does indeed derive from the Latin word for "peace" (pax), the term "requiescat" does not, in fact, mean "rest." In the original Latin, it actually referred to a "prayer offered for the repose of the dead" that literally expressed "may he (or she) begin to rest in peace."

Moreover, unlike our modern body-centric interpretation of R.I.P., hoping the deceased would repose in peace after death originally referred to their souls, not their bodies. Numerous religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, profess a belief in an afterlife, i.e., that death is not the end of human existence but, instead, that the soul survives the body in a different place and/or form, such as in heaven or hell, through reincarnation, or awaits resurrection -- often after a "judgment" of the deceased's actions or his or her beliefs during life on earth.

Thus, the original Latin phrase "requiescat in pace" was actually the prayer itself, offered to a higher spiritual power, as an expression of hope that the deceased's soul would find peace/comfort according to whatever religious/spiritual beliefs were relevant. In other words, "requiescat in pace" was not originally a secular human statement that a deceased individual would now find peace in death relative to the trials and travails of his or her life on earth (as used today) but, instead, served as an entreaty to God/a higher power that, in the survivor's view/hope, the deceased's soul deserved the peace and comfort afforded by the afterlife.

Historical Use
Before approximately A.D. 600-799, inscriptions and epitaphs on the graves of the dead did not feature "requiescat in pace" or the acronym R.I.P., despite an older existing religious concept "that the faithful were supposed to enter into a sleep of peace, that is to say into heaven as soon as they were dead."

In the 1700s, however, and likely due to the use of the original Latin phrase "requiescat in pace" during Roman Catholic burial rites, both these words and their abbreviation started appearing on cemetery tombstones and monuments.

Over time, these words and their abbreviation, R.I.P., started to appear more frequently on gravestones as followers of other religious faiths adopted them. Gradually, influenced by religious, cultural and societal shifts, the original intent of these words as a prayer, and their connection to the soul, was lost.

Additional Reading:
Last Words of Famous Writers
5 Tips for Writing a Successful Eulogy
What Does an Open Book on a Tombstone Mean?

"requiescat (n.)" Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 27, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=requiescat

The Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine, Volume 3, page 206, 1837. Retrieved June 29, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=xtQRAAAAYAAJ&pg

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