Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Epitaph on the tombstone of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (Drumcliffe, County Sligo): "Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death./Horseman, pass by."
Stephen Saks/Getty Images


(1) An epitaph is a short inscription in prose or verse on a tombstone or monument.

"The best epitaphs," wrote F. Lawrence in 1852, "are generally the shortest and the plainest. In no description of composition is elaborate and highly ornate phraseology so much out of place" (Sharpe's London Magazine)

(2) The term epitaph may also refer to a statement or speech commemorating someone who has died: a funeral oration. Adjective: epitaphic or epitaphial.

Essays on Epitaphs

  • "On Epitaphs," by E.V. Lucas
  • "On Graveyards," by Louise Imogen Guiney
  • "On Inscriptions and the Lapidary Style," by Vicesimus Knox
  • "On the Selection of Epitaphs," by Archibald MacMechan

Examples of Epitaphs

  • "Here lies Frank Pixley, as usual."
    (Composed by Ambrose Bierce for Frank M. Pixley, an American journalist and politician)
  • "Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
    Now she's at rest, and so am I."
    (John Dryden, epitaph intended for his wife)
  • "Here lies the body of Jonathan Near,
    Whose mouth is stretched from ear to ear;
    Tread softly, stranger, o'er this wonder,
    For if he yawns, you're gone, by thunder."
    (Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, Funny Epitaphs. The Mutual Book Company, 1902)
  • "Thorpe's
    (Quoted in Gleanings from the Harvest-Fields of Literature by C. C. Bombaugh, 1860)
  • "Under the sod
    Under these trees
    Lies the body of Jonathan Pease
    He is not here
    But only his pod
    He has shelled out his peas
    And gone to God."
    (Epitaph in Old North Cemetery, Nantucket, Massachusetts, quoted in Famous Last Words, by Laura Ward. Sterling Publishing Company, 2004)
  • "Here lies a great and mighty king
    Whose promise none relies on;
    He never said a foolish thing
    Nor ever did a wise one."
    (John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, on King Charles II)
  • "The epitaph flourished in the 17th century when writers struggled over the cultural function of the dead. . . . From the mid 18th to the early 19th century, the most important poetic epitaphs seek new ways of validating the importance of the dead."
    (Joshua Scodel, The English Poetic Epitaph. Cornell Univ. Press, 1991)
  • "The principle intention of epitaphs is to perpetuate the examples of virtue, that the tomb of a good man may supply the want of his presence, and veneration for his memory produce the same effect as the observation of his life."
    (Samuel Johnson, "An Essay on Epitaphs," 1740)
  • "'O Rare Ben Jonson,'--neither eulogy nor concision can be carried further than in those simple words, and no Latin could give the sincere and generous effect of the English...
    The general failure to produce a perfect inscription is the more remarkable, because the writer of epitaphs is not concerned to paint a true and accurate portrait. The purpose of an epitaph is rather to praise than to portray, since, according to [Samuel] Johnson's excellent phrase, 'in lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.' The substance, indeed, may be commonplace, if only the style be adequate."
    ("The Lapidary Style." The Spectator, April 29, 1899)
  • Dorothy Parker's Epitaph for Herself
    "That would be a good thing for them to carve on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment."
    (Dorothy Parker, who also said that "Excuse my dust" and "This is on me" would make suitable epitaphs)
  • Benjamin Franklin's Epitaph for Himself
    "The body of
    Like the cover of an old Book,
    Its contents torn out,
    And stript of its Lettering and Gilding
    Lies here, Food for Worms;
    Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
    For it will (as he believed) appear once more
    In a new and more beautiful edition
    Corrected and amended, by
    The Author."
    (Benjamin Franklin on himself, composed many years before his death)
  • Rebecca West's Epitaph for the Human Race
    "If the whole human race lay in one grave, the epitaph on its headstone might well be: 'It seemed a good idea at the time.'"
    (Rebecca West, quoted by Mardy Grothe in Ifferisms, 2009)

Further Reading​​​

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Epitaph." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epitaph-1690667. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 31). Epitaph. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epitaph-1690667 Nordquist, Richard. "Epitaph." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epitaph-1690667 (accessed May 31, 2023).