Definition of Epitaph

In literature, an epitaph is a short written tribute in poetry or prose in memory of a deceased person. The more common definition of epitaph is that of the inscription on a tombstone. Epitaphs may be written by anyone, including the deceased person him- or herself, in preparation for an impending death. William Shakespeare is one of many poets who wrote his own epitaph beforehand; some other writers have epitaphs on their tombstones that are quotes from their work but that they did not necessarily specify.

The word epitaph comes from the Greek word ἐπιτάφιος (epitaphios), meaning “a funeral oration,” originally from the words ἐπί (epi), which means “at, over” and τάφος (taphos), which means “tomb.”

Common Examples of Epitaph

There are many celebrities with famous tombstones. Here are some noteworthy epitaph examples:

  • “That’s all folks.”—Mel Blanc, the man who voiced the characters of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, etc
  • “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”—John Wayne, from an interview he gave. Originally, he wanted his epitaph to read “Feo, Fuerte, y Formal,” meaning “Ugly, Strong, and Dignified.”
  • “If I take wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.”—Charles A. Lindbergh
  • “The Best Is Yet To Come.”—Frank Sinatra
  • “Free at Last, Free at Last / Thank God Almighty / I’m Free at Last.”—Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior

Significance of Epitaph in Literature

There are three sense in which epitaphs are connected to literature. The first is perhaps the rarest to find; this is a scene in a story in which characters come across or react to a fictional epitaph created just for the purpose of the story. There are also epitaphs that are short poems written for a deceased person, which are not necessarily meant to be written on a tombstone. Then there are poems that are written on actual gravestones of writers. Often these poems are quotes from the authors themselves, or sometimes from other famous writers. This is a common form of epitaph, and it serves to highlight an important thought, quote, or theme of the writer’s life and work.

Examples of Epitaph in Literature

Example #1

“Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”—Percy Bysshe Shelley

The epitaph on Percy Bysshe Shelley is a quote from William Shakespeare. When Shelley died he had been sailing around Italy on a ship he’d renamed Ariel, for the character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Ironically, Ariel sunk in a storm, which is, of course, the first event that happens in The Tempest. Thus, it is fitting that the words on Shelley’s tombstone come from Ariel’s song “Full Fathom Five,” which is as follows:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.

Example #2

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 from the hill.

(“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s own gravestone is adorned with the his full, two-stanza poem “Requiem.” Like many examples of epitaphs, there are some very clever moments in this poem, such as the double meaning in Stevenson’s line “I laid me down with a will.”

Example #3

“Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’”—Edgar Allen Poe

The epitaph on author Edgar Allen Poe’s gravestone comes from arguably his most famous poem, “The Raven.” This line, Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’ is repeated often throughout the poem and serves to give a sense of the finality of death. There is also something a bit spooky and gothic about the quote, which befits Poe’s writing style.

Example #4

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald

The quote on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s headstone is the beautiful final line from his most famous and enduring novel, The Great Gatsby. This is also perhaps his most famous quote from any of his works. Unlike some examples of epitaphs, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s above, this quote does not deal explicitly with death. Yet the sense of nostalgia and sentimentality is strong here, and also speaks to the way the literature goes both forward and backward at the same time. Even after the author dies, the literature beats on while bearing the reader back into the past.

Example #5

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

(“The Lesson for Today” by Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s beautiful yet rare poem “The Lesson for Today” contains many contemplations of the meaning of life and death. The final stanza is excerpted above, after the narrator of the poem visits the graves of other men and reads their epitaphs. Robert Frost’s real gravestone carries the final line “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” which has thus become famous as a detached quote from the poem.

Example #6

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.

(A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

There are not many gravestones which play a large role in works of literature. However, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol features a very important example of epitaph. The character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits, who show him Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and, in an example of a flash forward, the Christmas that is Yet to Come. Scrooge is fearful of what is to come of his life, and no more so than when he sees his own gravestone. His grave is neglected, and there are no special words to memorialize him besides his own name. Scrooge’s horror at his impending fall into obscurity is one of the most important reasons for why he decides to change his life around before it’s too late.

Example #7

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling)

In the final installment of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry and his friend Hermione visit a graveyard to find the tombstones of his parents. They find many interesting gravestones in the same graveyard, many of which have symbolic and difficult to decipher epitaphs. Harry is particularly puzzled by the epitaph on his parents’ headstone, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This quote ends up meaning much more than it originally seems, and provides the final evidence of an important inheritance.

Test Your Knowledge of Epitaph

1. Which of the following is NOT an accurate epitaph definition?
A. The words on a tombstone.
B. A short poem of piece of prose to commemorate someone who has died.
C. The inscription on a statue or coin.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This is a definition of epigraph, not epitaph, though the concepts are related.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements about epitaphs is NOT true?
A. The words on a tombstone must be written by the deceased person.
B. Not all epitaphs are written on gravestones.
C. An epitaph can serve to highlight an important quote or theme from the deceased person.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. Sometimes the words on an epitaph come from a different writer, thinker, or artist.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from J. K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

She pointed to the dark stone. Harry stooped down and saw, upon the frozen lichen-spotted granite, the words KENDRA DUMBLEDORE and, a short way below her dates of birth and death, AND HER DAUGHTER ARIANA. There was also a quotation:
Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What is true of the line “Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also”?
A. This is an example of an epithet.
B. These words are meant to commemorate these two women’s lives.
C. Albus Dumbledore is the author of these words.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]