Epitaphs Explained: Definition, Examples, Writing Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is an epitaph?
  2. History of epitaphs
  3. Noteworthy epitaph examples
  4. How to write an epitaph
  5. Tips for writing effective epitaphs
  6. Epitaph examples from literature
  7. Why epitaphs matter

Ever walked through a cemetery and been intrigued by the words written on tombstones? Those inscriptions are more than mere words; they are epitaphs — the last narrative of a person's life. This blog will take you on a journey, exploring the definition of an epitaph, its historical significance, examples, and a practical guide on writing an epitaph. So, let's dive into the intriguing world of epitaphs.

What is an Epitaph?

At its core, the definition of an epitaph is a phrase or form of words written in memory of a person who has died, especially as an inscription on a tombstone. These words are often poignant and beautifully crafted to capture the essence of the person they commemorate. But epitaphs aren't just for tombstones. They are also remembered as something by which a person, time, or event will be remembered. Now, let's break this down a bit.

  • Phrase or form of words: An epitaph can be anything from a single word to a couple of sentences. They can be quotes, a line from a poem, or original words crafted by the family or friends.
  • Written in memory of a person who has died: The primary purpose of an epitaph is to honor the deceased. It's a way to keep their memory alive and share a glimpse of their life with those who come to pay their respects.
  • As an inscription on a tombstone: This is where you most commonly see epitaphs. They are etched onto the tombstone, serving as a lasting reminder of the person buried beneath.
  • Something by which a person, time, or event will be remembered: Epitaphs aren't just about the person; they can also reflect the era they lived in or significant events in their life. This wider definition of epitaph allows us to understand the historical and cultural context of the time.

So, when you next see a tombstone, take a moment to read the epitaph. It's more than just a simple definition—it's a story, a memory, and a legacy.

History of Epitaphs

Now that we have a clear definition of an epitaph, let's step back in time and understand its rich history. Epitaphs have a profound historical presence, dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Early Egyptians were among the first to use epitaphs. They wrote them on their pyramids and burial sites, often expressing their beliefs about life after death. These inscriptions provide valuable insight into Egyptian culture and their understanding of mortality and the afterlife.

In ancient Greece and Rome, epitaphs played a similar role. They were inscribed on tombs, often in verse, to commemorate the dead and reflect on the life they led. These epitaphs were not just expressions of sorrow but were also used to celebrate the deceased's achievements and virtues. Some were simple, others grand, but each one was unique to the person it represented.

As time progressed, epitaphs evolved. During the Middle Ages, they became more personalized, reflecting the deceased's profession, personality, or family ties. By the Victorian era, epitaphs had become longer, often including quotes from literature or religious texts. They were seen as a way to communicate the deceased's social standing, religious beliefs, and personal sentiments.

Today, epitaphs continue to be a significant part of our death rituals. They serve as a lasting tribute to our loved ones, encapsulating their life story in a few carefully chosen words. The history of epitaphs reminds us how deeply intertwined they are with our understanding of life, death, and memory.

Noteworthy Epitaph Examples

Having understood the definition of an epitaph and its history, let's explore some remarkable examples. These epitaphs stand out for their poignancy, wit, or simplicity, and they offer us a glimpse into the lives and personalities of the people they honor.

Perhaps one of the most famous epitaphs belongs to the eminent playwright, William Shakespeare. His gravestone bears the inscription: "Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones." These words, believed to be written by Shakespeare himself, reflect his desire to rest undisturbed in his final resting place.

Another noteworthy epitaph is the one on the tombstone of Mel Blanc, known as the "Man of a Thousand Voices" for his work in animation. His epitaph fittingly reads, "That's all folks," the catchphrase of his iconic character, Porky Pig. This epitaph is a playful nod to his illustrious career and the characters he brought to life.

Then there's the simple yet profound epitaph of Emily Dickinson, the celebrated American poet. Her gravestone bears just two words, "Called Back," reflecting her belief in the afterlife and her poetic style, which was often characterized by brevity and depth.

These examples illustrate the power of epitaphs. They can encapsulate a life's worth of experiences, achievements, and beliefs in a few words. And they serve to remind us that every life, however humble or grand, leaves an indelible mark on the world.

How to Write an Epitaph

Writing an epitaph can be a daunting task. After all, how do you capture the essence of a person's life in just a few words? Here are some steps to guide you.

First, think about the person whose life you're honoring. What were their passions, values, and defining traits? Did they have a favorite quote, song, or saying? These details can provide inspiration for the epitaph.

Next, keep it simple. The most memorable epitaphs are often the simplest. If you're struggling to condense everything into a few lines, remember this: an epitaph is not a biography. It's a tribute to the person's spirit and the impact they had.

Also, consider the tone. While some epitaphs are solemn, others are infused with humor or optimism. The tone should reflect the person's personality and the way they lived their life.

Finally, don't forget to proofread. An epitaph is a lasting tribute, so make sure it's free of errors. And remember, it's okay to ask others for their input or advice. Writing an epitaph is a significant responsibility, but it's also a shared one — a way for us to come together and celebrate the life of someone we cherished.

So, the next time you're faced with writing an epitaph, take a deep breath, remember these tips, and trust in your ability to create a meaningful tribute.

Tips for Writing Effective Epitaphs

Now that we've walked through the steps of writing an epitaph, let's delve into some specific strategies to make your epitaph as effective as possible.

Personalization is Key: The best epitaphs aren't generic — they are deeply personal and unique to the individual. Think about what made that person special and try to encapsulate it into words. It could be their love for gardening, their infectious laughter, or their undying love for their family.

Keep it Short and Sweet: Epitaphs are typically brief — usually no more than a sentence or two. The goal is to convey a lot of meaning in a few words. For example, "Devoted father, loving husband, and a true friend" says so much in just a handful of words.

Consider Using a Quote: If you're struggling to find the right words, consider using a quote that encapsulates the person's philosophy or outlook on life. It could be a line from a poem, a song lyric, or even a quote from their favorite book.

Don't Forget About Humor: While epitaphs are often serious, don't shy away from using humor if it's appropriate and reflects the personality of the deceased. A light-hearted epitaph can serve as a reminder of the joy and laughter the person brought into the world.

Final Check: Before finalizing the epitaph, read it out loud to see how it sounds and ensure it flows nicely. Also, check for any spelling or grammar mistakes.

Remember, writing an epitaph isn't about crafting the perfect sentence or phrase. It's about honoring the person's life and the influence they had on those around them. So write from the heart, and you can't go wrong.

Epitaph Examples from Literature

In the realm of literature, epitaphs have been used to great effect, providing readers with succinct and poignant summaries of a character's life, or serving as a reflective commentary on the narrative itself. Here are a few notable examples:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." These are the closing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and while not an epitaph in the traditional sense, they encapsulate the tragic life and death of Jay Gatsby and the perpetual struggle of the human condition.

"Here lies Dobby, a free elf." This epitaph, found in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," marks the resting place of Dobby, the house-elf. The epitaph, though short, reflects Dobby's hard-fought freedom and his unwavering loyalty to Harry Potter.

"Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie." These lines are from Robert Louis Stevenson's own epitaph, a verse from his poem, "Requiem." Stevenson, the author of "Treasure Island" and "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," chose this verse for his own gravestone, a reflection of his adventurous spirit and acceptance of mortality.

In each of these examples, the epitaph provides a profound summary of the character's life and the themes of the narrative. While the definition of epitaph may imply a finality, in literature, they often serve to immortalize the characters and their stories in the minds of the readers.

Why Epitaphs Matter

Epitaphs, in their simplicity and brevity, carry a weighty significance. They serve as the final words that represent an individual's life, distilling their essence into a brief, memorable statement. But why do epitaphs matter?

Firstly, epitaphs offer a form of closure. For those left behind, crafting an epitaph can be a cathartic experience, a final act of tribute to the deceased. It allows for a sense of finality and peace.

Secondly, epitaphs encapsulate a person's legacy. Whether it's a short, witty phrase or a profound quote, an epitaph can convey the values, achievements, or character of the individual. It's a snapshot of who they were and what they stood for.

Thirdly, epitaphs are a connection to the past. They offer insights into societal norms, cultural values, and historical events. From a historian's perspective, an epitaph is a valuable resource.

Finally, epitaphs inspire reflection about our own mortality and the impermanence of life. They prompt us to consider what we would want our own epitaph to say. What words would encapsulate our lives? What legacy do we want to leave behind?

In conclusion, the definition of epitaph extends beyond simply being a tombstone inscription. It's a powerful tool for remembrance, reflection, and connection — a testament to the enduring impact of a single life.

If you enjoyed exploring the world of epitaphs and want to further develop your writing skills, we recommend checking out the workshop 'Writing From Memory - Part 2' by Charlie Brogan. This workshop will help you learn how to write from memory, which is a valuable skill when crafting meaningful and personal epitaphs.