These days when people lose their loved ones, they commemorate them by erecting beautiful monuments. Epitaphs play the most important role on a headstone. An epitaph represents a text written on a tombstone. In fact, it is the last words one can say to the world. The word epitaph itself came from ancient Greece. The original Greek word “Epitaphios” means “funeral oration.” In Ancient Greece, epitaphs were brief texts, and their purpose was to honor a departed person.
Nowadays, epitaphs can take all forms and types. Today, we will tell you about the history of epitaphs, their original meaning, and their forms. We will discuss how epitaphs changed during their history and how people use them today. In addition, we will share with you a list of epitaphs written on the headstones of remarkable people from all around the world.
The history of epitaphs
Epitaphs have a remarkably long history in human culture. Initially, the epitaphs came to Western civilization from Ancient Greece. Greeks used epitaphs to commemorate their departed people by putting inscriptions on their headstones and tombs. Each large city (polis) in Ancient Greece had its own government, traditions, and rules. According to this, each polis had its own approach to epitaphs. For example, to honor the famous three hundred Spartan soldiers who fell at the battle of Thermopylae, a Spartan King Siminoides ordered to prescribe the following words: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by that here, obedient to their law, we lie.” on his own tomb.
Even though Ancient Greek and Persian cultures were pretty different from each other, it seems that both Greeks and Persians used epitaphs in more or less the same way. Let’s take Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, as an example. He ordered to inscribe on his tomb “Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire and was king of Asia. Grudge me not, therefore, this monument.” These words remained on his tomb long enough for Alexander the Great himself to read them when he overcame the Persian Empire several hundred years later.
Another remarkable example of the usage of epitaphs came from the Ancient Roman Republic and Empire. Roman Empire borrowed many cultural features from Ancient Greece. In the 1st century BC, an unknown Roman citizen created the famous “Laudatio Turiae.” It is a relatively large tombstone with over 180 lines of words. He made this tombstone to commemorate and honor his wife. The name of this tombstone says: “In praise of Turia.”
After the rise of Christianity in Ancient Rome and during the early Medieval period, also called “the Dark Ages,” the vast majority of epitaphs were borrowed from the Bible. The same goes for the usage of aphorisms. Most of them still present even in modern days: “Sacred to the memory of…,” “Here lies.” Also, one can’t forget about the commonly seen till these days “Rest in Peace” or “RIP” letterings.
This state of affairs in Western culture lasted up to the 19th century. There was a significant rise in creativity in the 19th century. And this affected the monument industry greatly. Epitaphs became more individualized and creative. More and more frequently, people preferred their own ideas of epitaphs over the commonly accepted ones. Some even decided for themselves what epitaph they want to have on their headstones. Often, people started applying some humor as the dominant motif of their epitaphs.
Talking about modern American culture, epitaphs can take all forms and contents. People use epitaphs to commemorate their departed loved ones, and creativity is the key to success. Epitaphs strongly depend on one’s culture, hobbies, and interests. Modern epitaphs convey the ideology, cultural values, religious beliefs, and aesthetic taste of departed people. People who write their epitaphs themselves aim to fill them with things that were important for them during their lives.
Today, the vast majority of epitaphs apart from the name of the deceased person, date of one’s birth, and death also represent brief records of their family, beliefs, career achievements, or love expressions. For example, one often can see tombstones with “beloved father of…” written on them. With time, epitaphs become longer and bigger. However, till these days, the largest known epitaph comes from Ancient Rome. We have already mentioned it before. It is the famous “Laudatio Turiae.” However, the length of an epitaph is not the most important thing. One doesn’t actually need many words to express their love. Just take a look at these beautiful epitaphs.
- “So Loved. So special. So Missed.”
- “A thousand years begins and ends with you.”
- “You know.”
- “To live in the hearts of those we love is not to die.”
- “Life goes, remembrance will be always.”
- “Only love.”
- “You Calm in the threes.”
- “Live. Laugh. Love.”
- “May perpetual light shine on the faces of those who live here.”
- “Strong. Kind. Loving and loved.”
- “Born in God’s hands.”
- “Beloved and valued Father.”
- “They were lovely in their lives, and in death they were not parted. “
- “Love of My Life.”
- “You will always be our enduring inspiration.”
- “You were my choice.”
- “I’ll see you on the other side of the stars.”
- “We will always love you.”
- “Keep smiling.”
A good sense of humor can get anyone through hard times. People have always been using humor to make this life more bearable. With time, it has become pretty common to apply humor when writing an epitaph. Also, people tend to mention their remarkable achievements in their epitaphs humorously. Here are some examples of epitaphs that apply humor:
- Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004) Famous American actor and comedian.
“There goes the neighborhood”
- Robert Frost (1874-1963) American poet.
“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”
- Mel Blanc (1908-1989) Voice actor, the voice of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny.
“That’s all folks”
- Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
“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 believed
appear once more
In a new and more elegant Edition
Corrected and improved
By the Author.”
- Ludolph van Ceulen (1540-1610) Famous German-Dutch mathematician. He determined the value of pi to 35 digits.
- Laurie Lee (1914–1997)
“He lies in the valley he loved”
- Michael Leroy Luther (1952-2007)
- Kamran Bowman (1956-2013)
“I made some good deals. I made some bad ones. I really went in the hole with this one. “
- Dee Dee Ramone (1951 – 2002) American musician
“O.K… I gotta go now.”
- Merv Griffin (1925-2007) American television host
“I will not be right back after this message.”
- Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010) American comedian and actor
“Let ‘er rip”
- Joan Hackett (1934-1983) American Actress
“Go away – I’m asleep”
- Bette Davis (1908 – 1989)
“She did it the hard way”
Politicians and famous people are the influencers of their time. As a result, they have a pretty unique approach to epitaphs. It is more common for them to commemorate their most remarkable accomplishments in life. Sometimes such people try to convey a message to those who read their epitaphs. At the same time, even some politicians don’t neglect humor in their memorials.
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia”
- Winston Churchill Epitaph (1874-1965)
“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
- George Washington (1732-1799)
“Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s word. Then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”
- Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.”
- William “Bill” Herrell Kugle (1925-1992)
“He never voted for Republicans and had little to do with them.”
- Alexander the Great (356 BC–323 BC)
“A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough.”
- Laurie Lee (1914–1997)
“He lies in the valley he loved”
Death has always been a part of our lives, and there is no hiding from it. No matter who we are, where we live, we can’t be immortal. People from all over the world, since ancient times, did their best to add meaning to the death of their loved ones. Epitaphs always were and still are one of the best ways to commemorate and honor deceased people. An epitaph is not something that requires strict rules and regulations. Creating an epitaph is a very personal matter, and there is no “right” way of doing it. It is a word of a soul. The last message one wants to share with the world. If you have encountered the need to write an epitaph for someone you lost or for yourself, then listen to your heart. Let your epitaph be the sacred thing you desired to tell someone you love or wanted to share with the world.