Although widely culturally variable, it is often an important ritual in death to mark the grave or otherwise physically memorialize the deceased. This is certainly widely practiced in the United States. An epitaph is in inscription that somehow memorialized the dead, and in American culture, usually inscription on a tomb stone. Epitaphs are often one of the earliest applications of written language in a culture and were important in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman societies. These verses usually give biographical information, memorialize the deceased or relay message. They often convey family lineage, great achievements, valued character traits, birth and death dates, cause of death or advice. Epitaphs are highly culturally revealing. They are lasting communication between the dead and the living, an immortalization and commemoration of a life. They convey cultural values, ideology, political climate, religious beliefs, mortuary rituals, and aesthetic taste. An epitaph contains what a society believes is important in defining death and remembering life. As such, they are important in study of anthropology, archaeology, literature, and history.

Ancient Grecian epitaphs are a wonderful example. From Histories by Herodotus, appears a epitaph, “This is the tomb of the glorious Megistias, whom once the Medes killed when they crossed the river Sperchius: he was a seer, who recognized clearly that the Spirits of Death were approaching then, but could bring himself to desert Sparta’s leaders.” This verse identifies the deceased, and reveals the importance of glory and significance of a heroic death in battle in Grecian society. On a grave mound at the site of the Battle of Thermopylae, a famous epitaph by Simonides reads an inscription to commemorate the entire army, “Here four thousand from the Peloponnese once fought against three million” and specifically for the Spartans, “Stranger, report to the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their words.” In this inscription, the dead are actually given a voice to communicate with an unknown, living audience. They declare their obedience and courage, and are immortalized.

A reproduction of the epitaph at Thermopylae

Epitaphs reveal attitudes toward death, expressions of grief and mourning, or sometimes comedy. There are many famous epitaphs, and each reveals an aspect of culture surrounding death, as well as life. A selection are listed below:

The gravestone of Leonard Matlovich, the first member of the U.S military to publically out himself and a recipient of a Purple Heart

A renowned gunslinger in the Old West with his own moral code

A family recipe promised upon Kay’s death

Shakespeare’s epitaph meant to prevent his corpse from being excavated for research

A Holocaust survivor

An honest personal memory

Works Cited

Newworldencyclopedia.org. (2016). Battle of Thermopylae – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Battle_of_Thermopylae [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Conradt, S. (2015). 29 Unforgettable Epitaphs. [online] Mentalfloss.com. Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/66298/29-unforgettable-epitaphs [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Deathreference.com. (2017). Epitaphs – body, funeral, life, history, time, human. [online] Available at: http://www.deathreference.com/En-Gh/Epitaphs.html [Accessed 6 Mar. 2017].

Jiang, T. (2015). The Value of Epitaph Words Study. Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, 05(03), pp.232-237.

Lattimore, R. (1960). Greek lyrics. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3 responses to “Epitaphs

  1. Chandler Lichtefeld

    Epitaphs is a component of death that I never paid closed attention to, but can be powerful and memorable. It is a way to leave your last mark on earth. I have always wondered who chooses what epitaph is used on people’s tombstone. Does the person whose tombstone it belongs to write their epitaph before they die or does a family member write the epitaph? I feel like it would be very difficult to decide what words you would want to leave on your tombstone. These will be the words that everyone remembers you by and if you chose the wrong words, it might memorialize you in a mistaken way. However, there are also many funny epitaphs displayed on tombstones that might be used to memorialize a person in a different way than a typical epitaph would.

    • Actually, Chandler, not only is some thread of humor very common in epitaphs, in many cases humor is the dominant tone of such an inscription. It has been written that the epitaphic form can be encapsulated in three requirements: Gravity, Levity, and Brevity. That epitaph composers resort to humor with such high frequency–even at the sites of mourning, memorialization, and loss–speaks to the needs of the living. Some think it indicates how the needs of the living outweigh are in fact more highly valued than some typical notions regarding “respect” for the deceased. Though unavoidable, one’s death is, of course, not a typical moment; it is also true that the dead are no longer present to object to what is inscribed on the stone that marks the resting place of their remains.

  2. Deandre Miles-Hercules

    What a great post!! Indeed, inscription in important method by which humans memorialize the dead. This post reminds me of the ways that inscription is also the production of history, especially in the case of the dead. In other words, once an individual passes away they only exist in the memories of the living. However, once a significant amount of time passes, only that which has been inscribed can be recalled. Hence what society writes about you becomes the authority on your memorialization. For example, in the above epitaph “My brother was good at pissing people off,” we are given the perspective of the deceased’s sibling, which does not offer a flattering portrait of Mr. Eads. However, because he cannot speak for himself, we are not likely to contest this image since it is all we know of him. In fact, he died before I was even born. As such, we might imagine him as a grumpy older gentleman, though the one image we have likely does not provide a complete depiction of his life and reputation. While the power of inscription rests also in books, letters, etc., it is especially relevant here by highlighting the true power of epitaphs. Perhaps I should start thinking of my epitaph now, as not to end up like Mr. Eads

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