The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with Western culture and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (March 2019)
An epitaph (from Greek epitaphios "a funeral oration" from epi "at, over" and taphos "tomb") is a short text honoring a deceased person. Strictly speaking, it refers to text that is inscribed on a tombstone or plaque, but it may also be used in a figurative sense. Some epitaphs are specified by the person themselves before their death, while others are chosen by those responsible for the burial. An epitaph may be written in prose or in poem verse; poets have been known to compose their own epitaphs prior to their death.
Most epitaphs are brief records of the family, and perhaps the career, of the deceased, often with a common expression of love or respect--for example, "beloved father of ..."--but others are more ambitious. From the Renaissance to the 19th century in Western culture, epitaphs for notable people became increasingly lengthy and pompous descriptions of their family origins, career, virtues and immediate family, often in Latin. Notably, the Laudatio Turiae, the longest known Ancient Roman epitaph, exceeds almost all of these at 180 lines; it celebrates the virtues of an honored wife, probably of a consul.
Some are quotes from holy texts, or aphorisms. One approach of many epitaphs is to 'speak' to the reader and warn them about their own mortality. A wry trick of others is to request the reader to get off their resting place, inasmuch as the reader would have to be standing on the ground above the coffin to read the inscription. Some record achievements (e.g., past politicians note the years of their terms of office). Nearly all (excepting those where this is impossible by definition, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) note name, year or date of birth, and date of death. Many list family members and the relationship of the deceased to them (for example, "Father / Mother / Son / Daughter of").
The history of epitaphs extends as far back as the ancient Egyptians and have differed in delivery. The ancient Greeks utilised emotive expression, written in elegiac verse, later in prose. Ancient Romans use of epitaphs was more blunt and uniform, typically detailing facts of the deceased - as did the earliest epitaphs in English churchs. "May the earth lie light upon thee" was a common inscription for them. Due to the influence of Roman occupiers, the dominant language of epitaphs was Latin, evidenced by the oldest existing epitaphs in Britain. French and English came into fashion around the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively.
By the 16th century, epitaphs had become more literary in nature and those written in verse were involved in trade. In America and Britain, comedic epitaphs are common in the form of acrostics, palindromes, riddles, and puns on names and professions - Robert Burns, the most prolific pre-Romantic epitaphist, wrote 35 pieces, them being largely satrical. The rate of literary epitaphs has been historically overshadowed by "popular sepulchral inscriptions which are produced in countless numbers at all time"; "Strictly literary" epitaphs were most present during the start of the Romantic period.
The lake poets have been credited with providing success to epitaph-writing adjcent to that of poetry significance - Robert Southey, in focusing simultaneously upon transience and eternity, contributed substantially. General interest for epitaphs was waning at the cusp of the 19th century; in contrast to a considerable burgeoning intellectual interest. Crticial essays had been published before on the matter, possibly contributing towards its flourishment in the latter half of the 18th century. Epitaphs never became a major poetic form, and, according to Romantic scholar, Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch, they had "virtually disappeared" by 1810; "The art of the epitaph was largely lost in the 20th century", wrote Encyclopedia Britannica.
Sarcophagi and coffins were the choice of ancient Egyptians for epitaphs; brasses was the prominent format for a significant period of time. Epitaphs upon stone monuments became a common feature by the Elizabethan era.
Stock phrases or standard elements present in epitaphs on mediaeval church monuments and ledger stones in England include:
While you live, shine
have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and Time demands his due.
This is my father's crime against me, which I myself committed against none.
Good frend for ?esvs sake forebeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be y? man y? spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he y? moves my bones.
(In modern spelling):
Good friend for Jesus's sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water-- John Keats
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.
Homo sum! the adventurer
Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
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.
Oh God (Devanagari: )
I've finally stopped getting dumber.
(Hungarian: Végre nem butulok tovább.)-- Paul Erd?s
We must know. We will know.
(German: Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.)
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
that here, obedient to their law, we lie.
Here sleeps at peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his early death by drinking cold small beer.
Soldiers, be wise at his untimely fall,
And when you're hot, drink strong or none at all.
To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?
There is borne an empty hearse
covered over for such as appear not.
Heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.
And the beat goes on.-- Sonny Bono
That's all folks!-- Mel Blanc
I told you I was ill.
(Irish: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite.)
He never killed a man that did not need killing.
Epitaph for heart of Frédéric Chopin
Grave of W. B. Yeats; Drumecliff, Co. Sligo
The epitaph on voice actor Mel Blanc's tombstone
Inscription at Heather O'Rourke's crypt
A folksy epitaph to an English village blacksmith in Houghton, Cambridgeshire, UK
The gravestone of comedian, writer and actor Spike Milligan showing the notable epitaph
In a more figurative sense, the term may be used for music composed in memory of the deceased. Igor Stravinsky composed in 1958 Epitaphium for flute, clarinet and harp. In 1967 Krzysztof Meyer called his Symphony No. 2 for choir and orchestra Epitaphium Stanis?aw Wiechowicz in memoriam. Jeffrey Lewis composed Epitaphium - Children of the Sun for narrator, chamber choir, piano, flute, clarinet and percussion. In 1969, King Crimson released the song Epitaph, giving a reference to epitaphs within the song. Bronius Kutavi?ius composed in 1998 Epitaphium temporum pereunti. Valentin Silvestrov composed in 1999 Epitaph L.B. ( ?.?.) for viola (or cello) and piano. In 2007 Graham Waterhouse composed Epitaphium for string trio as a tribute to the memory of his father William Waterhouse. The South African poet Gert Vlok Nel wrote an (originally) untitled song, which appeared on his first music album 'Beaufort-Wes se Beautiful Woorde' as 'Epitaph', because his producer Eckard Potgieter told him that the song sounded like an epitaph. David Bowie's final album, Blackstar, released in 2016, is generally seen as his musical epitaph, with singles "Blackstar" and "Lazarus" often singled out.
In the late 1990s, a unique epitaph was flown to the Moon along with the ashes of geologist and planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker. At the suggestion of colleague Carolyn Porco, Shoemaker's ashes were launched aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft on January 6, 1998. The ashes were accompanied by a laser-engraved epitaph on a small piece of foil. The spacecraft, along with the ashes and epitaph, crashed on command into the south polar region of the Moon on July 31, 1999.