Definition of Epitaph

When somebody from our family and friend dies, we want to commemorate his/her memories. For this, we use epitaph, which is a brief writing or saying. Epitaph is an inscription written on a grave. Generally, it is a brief composition, having figurative sense in a verse or in prose form, written to pay tribute to a deceased person, or to remember a past event. Strictly speaking, epitaph is a short text on a plaque or tombstone, honoring a dead person. It is derived from a Greek word epitaphios that means funeral oration. Many poets and authors have written their epitaphs prior to their death, such as William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath and Oscar Wilde and John Keats.

Epitaph and Eulogy

An epitaph and a eulogy have a similar function that is to pay tribute to dead persons. However, both are also different, as an epitaph is a brief and concise commemorative inscription engraved on the tombstone of a dead person, while a eulogy is a spoken or written piece of writing in praise of a dead person, and it is usually made at the funeral. Besides, a eulogy can also be used for a living person, as it incorporates stories, anecdotes and memories of the subject. An epitaph, on the other hand, is just an honoring poem or an inscription written on the tombstone only for the dead people.

Examples of Epitaph from Literature

The use of epitaph flourished during seventeenth century when writers struggled over the cultural significance of their dead ones. However, later in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many ways were adopted to validate its importance and, therefore, renowned writers wrote their epitaphs before their death. Here we have a list of some good epitaphs:

Example 1

Oscar Wilde’s Epitaph

Wilde’s epitaph is inscribed on his gravestone in a very sentimental verse. It reads;

“And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.”

This epitaph is from his popular poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The poem describes that death is also like a prison sentence. Further, he adds a witty statement that in the grave “the food in here is awful.”

Example 2

Robert Frost’s Epitaph
Robert Frost also wrote his epitaph a few years prior to his death. He took last lines from a poem, “The Lesson for Today.”

The final lines read as;

“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.”

Unfortunately, most of lovers cannot make up their love. However, Frost was nearly close to be done with his love, when he passed away at the age of 88. This quote gives an apt presentation by the poet.

Example 3

William Butler Yeats’ Epitaph
Yeats in penned his epitaph as;

“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!”

It seems that he is giving an advice to his readers to not hang back over his corpse for a very long time, nevertheless the words have rather deep meaning. He had taken these lines from the poem “Under Ben Bulben.” This is one of most popular modern epitaphs.

Example 4

William Shakespeare’s Epitaph

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg þe dust encloased heare.
Blese be þe man þat spares þes stones,
And curst be he þat moves my bones.

Shakespeare had given a prediction that somebody might dig up his grave and due to this fear, he composed his epitaph in a verse form before his death. This poem is chiseled on his gravestone.

Example 5

Sylvia Plath’s Epitaph

Sylvia Plath’s husband Ted Hughes had chosen her epitaph engraved on her gravestone that reads,

“Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted.”

Function of Epitaph

The major function of writing epitaph is to praise and pay tribute to deceased persons. It is used to provide an example of virtue and goodness how a tomb of the good people could serve to provide a sense of their presence. In addition, a veneration of a dead person’s memories could produce similar effects, as we would see in his/her presence. Secondly, its function is to let the audience know and warn them that their lives are also mortal like their predecessors. Thirdly, it preserves the history, as it shows ancestral relationships, date of birth and death and accomplishments of the deceased persons.

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1 comment for “Epitaph

  1. Karen
    February 16, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    If the epitaph is by an author other than the deceased person, should you include that name on the stone?

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