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Famous Epitaphs

Who produced the greatest epitaphs of all time? It should come as no surprise that the greatest writers produced some of the greatest epitaphs: Shakespeare, Homer, Sappho, Aristotle, Basho, Dante, Dickinson, Martial, Milton, Plato, Socrates, Twain, Voltaire, et al.

Epitaph definition: (1) an inscription memorializing the dead; (2) a brief statement commemorating or epitomizing a deceased person or something past; (3) a type of epigram that deals with death or loss.

These epitaphs were compiled by Michael R. Burch

Here's an epitaph  in the form of a quatrain that seems just as pertinent today as the day it was written:

These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me―
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee.
—Emily Dickinson

Introduction to Epitaphs

It's no accident that some of my favorite epitaphs are by women. After all, the first great lyric poet of antiquity was Sappho of Lesbos; she wrote poems that were set to the music of a lyre (hence, the term "lyric" for a short poem). Thus, Sappho is the mother of lyric poets and singer-songwriters like Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Carole King, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.

The Top Ten Epitaphs of All Time (in one person's opinion)

Oh God of dust and rainbows, help us see
that without dust the rainbow would not be.
—Langston Hughes

The births of all things are weak and tender, therefore we should have our eyes intent on beginnings.—Michel de Montaigne
Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart, and his friends can only read the title.—Virginia Woolf
We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels sing. We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.—Anton Chekov
The mountain violets have broken the rocks.—Tennessee Williams (slightly paraphrased)
Our existence is a short circuit of light between two eternities of darkness.—Vladimir Nabokov
There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.—Leonard Cohen

I like not only to be loved but also to be told that I am loved.
The realm of silence is large enough beyond the grave.
This is the world of light and speech.
And I shall take leave to tell you that you are very dear.
—George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans)

I expect to pass this way but once;
any good therefore that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.
—Etienne Griellet

It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before,
to test your limits,
to break through barriers.
And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
—Ana´s Nin

A Brief History of Epitaphs

Ancient Greek epitaphs may be the oldest genre of European literature and poetry. There are startling similarities between Greek epigrams and Oriental haiku. For example:

Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune:
I wish you a kinder sea.
—Plato, translation by Michael R. Burch

This darkening autumn:
my neighbor,
how does he continue?
―Matsuo Basho, translation by Michael R. Burch

Just as I select a ship when it's time to travel,
or a house when it's time to change residences,
even so I will choose when it's time to depart from life.
―Seneca, speaking about the right to euthanasia in the first century AD, translation by Michael R. Burch

Some of the earliest Greek epigrams were gravestone inscriptions, or epitaphs. The epigram attributed to Plato above could easily have appeared on the headstone of an ancient mariner. Such early poems may have survived simply because they were carved in stone. The first uses of the term epigramma appear in the writings of Herodotus (circa 484–425 BC) and Thucydides (circa 460–395 BC), but the verses they cited may predate the references by three centuries or more. Sophocles (circa 497-406 BC) and Euripides (circa 480-406 BC) also alluded to verse inscriptions, so the epigram was firmly established no later than the fourth century BC, probably much earlier.

The epitaph is a form of epigram. Here are two epigrams gleaned from Greek graves, which I have paraphrased, under the heading Athenian Epitaphs:

Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gull
in his high, lonely circuits, may tell.
—Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Here is my interpretation of a poem by Simonides commemorating the Spartan heroes who died defending the "hot gates" of Thermopylae from invading Persians:

tell the Spartans we lie
dead at Thermopylae―
murdered at their word,
obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
—Simonides, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

If you're interested in reading more epigrams and epitaphs of the ancients, please click here.

Tombstone Inscriptions

William Shakespeare (1564-1616):

Good friend, for Jesus's sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed by the man who spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

John Keats (1795-1821):
Here lies One
Whose name was writ in Water.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822):
"Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange."
[quotation from Shakespeare's The Tempest]

John Donne (1572-1631):
Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne's body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.

Ben Jonson (1573-1637):
O rare Ben Jonson!

Aphra Behn (1640-89):
Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

Olivia Susan Clemens (1866-1890) [the daughter of Mark Twain]:
Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light
Good-night, dear heart, good-night, good-night.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94):
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.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939):
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924):
Sleep after toile, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life, does greatly please.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953):
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea . . .

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953):
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967):
Excuse my dust.

Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior (1929-1968):
Free at Last,
Free at Last,
Thank God Almighty
I'm Free at Last!

More Stellar Examples of Epitaphs

Comedy is merely tragedy happening to someone else.—W. C. Fields
Men always want to be a woman's first love; women like to be a man's last romance.—Oscar Wilde
Sex and sleep alone make me conscious that I am mortal.—Alexander the Great
I am dying with the help of too many physicians.—Alexander the Great
A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.—Alexander the Great
To the strongest!—Alexander the Great [when asked who should inherit his empire]
Once fanaticism has gangrened brains the malady is usually incurable.—Voltaire, translation by Michael R. Burch
I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.—Mark Twain

Famous Last Words

More light!—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Oh Wow!!! Oh Wow!!! Oh Wow!!!—Steve Jobs
'Tis well.—George Washington
It's very beautiful over there.—Thomas Edison
Beautiful!—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The taste of death is upon my lips; I feel something that is not of this earth.—Mozart
Friends applaud, the comedy is over.—Ludwig van Beethoven
Drink to me!—Pablo Picasso
Don't disturb my equations!—Archimedes, to the soldier who killed him
It's better to burn out than to fade away. Peace, Love, Empathy.—Kurt Cobain, quoting Neil Young
Cool it, brothers.—Malcolm X
Love one another.—George Harrison
Don't mourn for me. Organize!—Joe Hill
Come on! Take action! Let's go!—Sitting Bull
Are you guys ready? Let's roll.—Todd Beamer, United Flight 93, September 11, 2001
God will forgive me. That is his profession.—Heinrich Heine
Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.—Voltaire, on his deathbed, when asked by a priest to denounce Satan

To read more, please click here: Famous Last Words.

Heaven (and how to get there)

The mystics of many religions, from Judaism to Christianity to Sufism, and even agnostics and atheists have at times have had visions of what seems to be heaven:

The lion shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them.—A common rephrasing of Isaiah 11:6-8
All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.—Julian of Norwich, hearing the voice of God in a vision
Be not dishearten'd—Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet; those who love each other shall become invincible.—Walt Whitman
Love suffers long, and is kind; envies not; seeks not her own; thinks no evil; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.—Saint Paul
Love never fails.—Saint Paul
If God is not love, he is nothing, and all the words of the Bible are just clanging gongs and tinkling cymbals.—Saint Paul (paraphrased)
And now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.—Saint Paul, concluding his epistle on Divine Love
To love another person is to see the face of God.—Victor Hugo
The love of heaven makes one heavenly.—William Shakespeare
How can one live without grace? One has to do what Christianity never did: be concerned with the damned.—Albert Camus

I agree with Camus. If like me you have a hard time reconciling the idea of unconditional love, grace and forgiveness with an "eternal hell," you may be interested to learn what I discovered: There is no "Hell" in the Bible.

More Epitaphs

I have not come to praise Caesar, but to bury him.—Brutus
Et tu, BrutÚ?—Julius Caesar [You too, Brutus?]

Here's one of mine called "Epitaph for a Palestinian Child":

I lived as best I could, and then I died.
Be careful where you step: the grave is wide.
Michael R. Burch

The epitaph above has become my most popular poem on the Internet. The last time I checked with Google, the second line had 38,500 results and seems to have been adopted by large numbers of tweeters, bloggers, et al.

Sometimes the lines blur. Here's an epitaph that is also a chiasmus, from the headstone of the famous boxer Jack Dempsey:

A gentle man and a gentleman.—Unknown


I don't know what weapons will be used in World War III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.—Albert Einstein
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.—John F. Kennedy
Anyone who thinks must think of the next war as they would of suicide.—Eleanor Roosevelt
If we don't end war, war will end us.—H. G. Wells
Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.—John F. Kennedy
War does not determine who is right, just who is left.—Unknown, associated by fans of Dan Fogelberg with his song "Ghosts"

The history of such epigrams goes "way back" in time. In the 6th century B.C. the legendarily rich King Croesus of Lydia said:

In peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons.—Croesus

When we consider the expensive, bloody follies of the U.S. government in the Middle East, we can only wish American politicians had heeded Will Rogers:

If there is one thing that we do worse than any other nation, it is try and manage somebody else's affairs.― Will Rogers

And a great French essayist can explain why American freedoms seem to be vanishing:

The clatter of arms drowns out the voice of law.—Michel de Montaigne

More Epitaphs

Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!—Dorothy (played by Judy Garland)
Houston, we have a problem.—Jim Lovell
Before Elvis, there was nothing.—John Lennon
Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.—John Lennon
It's better to burn out, than fade away.—Neil Young
Who wants to live forever?—Freddy Mercury of Queen
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.—Don McLean
And though you want to last forever, you know you never will, and the good-bye makes the journey harder still.—Cat Stevens
The answer is blowin' in the wind.—Bob Dylan
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.—Kris Kristofferson/Janis Joplin
Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.—Leonard Cohen
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.—Leonard Cohen
I don't consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.—Leonard Cohen

Related pages: The Greatest Epigrammatists, A Brief History of Epigrams with Examples, Famous Epigraphs and Literary Borrowings, Puns and Wordplay, Political Epigrams, Epigrams about Sex and Marriage, Humorous Epigrams, One-Liners and Zingers, Chiasmus, Tweets, Love Epigrams, Zionist Quotes, Tax Quotes of the Rich and Famous, The Dumbest Things Ever Said, The Best Insults Ever, Famous Last Words, The Best Epigrams, Mitt Romney Quotes, Paul Ryan Quotes, The Best Symbols, The Best Metaphors and Similes, The Best Donald Trump Jokes, Is there a Republican War on Women?, The Best Muhammad Ali Poetry

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