epitaph

epitaph

[ep-i-taf, -tahf]
epitaph, strictly, an inscription on a tomb; by extension, a statement, usually in verse, commemorating the dead. The earliest such inscriptions are those found on Egyptian sarcophagi. In England epitaphs did not begin to assume a literary character until the time of Elizabeth I. Ben Jonson, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson were considered masters of the art. The epitaph on Ben Jonson's own tomb in Westminster Abbey was splendidly brief: "O rare Ben Jonson!" Epitaphs are often humorous. It is not known whether the epitaph printed below is amusing by design or by accident: Here lie I Martin Elginbrodde: Have mercy on my soul, Lord God, As I wad do, were I Lord God, And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.

Inscription in verse or prose on a tomb, or, by extension, anything written as if to be inscribed on a tomb. Probably the earliest surviving epitaphs are those written on ancient Egyptian sarcophagi and coffins. Ancient Greek examples are often of literary interest. In Elizabethan times epitaphs began to assume a more literary character. Many of the best known are literary memorials (often deliberately witty) not intended for a tomb.

Learn more about epitaph with a free trial on Britannica.com.

An epitaph (in Greek, ἐπιτάφιος — literally "on the gravestone") is a short text honoring a deceased person, strictly speaking that inscribed on their tombstone or plaque, but also used figuratively. Some are specified by the dead person beforehand, others chosen by those responsible for the burial. An epitaph may be in verse; poets have been known to compose their own epitaphs prior to their death, as W.B. Yeats did.

Most epitaphs are brief records of the family, and perhaps the career, of the deceased, often with an expression of love or respect - "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. However, the Laudatio Turiae, the longest known Ancient Roman epitaph exceeds almost all of these at 180 lines; it celebrates the virtues of a wife, probably of a consul.

Some are quotes from holy texts, or aphorisms. An approach of many successful 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, as often it would require the reader to stand 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) but nearly all (excepting those including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where this is impossible) note name, year or date of birth and date of death. Many list family and their relation to them; such as Father / Mother / Son / Daughter etc of.

Notable epitaphs

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
that here, obedient to their law, we lie.

Simonides's epigram at Thermopylae

I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

Winston Churchill

To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?

— Epitaph for the Unknown Soldier, written by W. H. Auden

AGAINST YOU I WILL FLING MYSELF,
UNVANQUISHED AND UNYIELDING, O DEATH!

Virginia Woolf

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

- William Shakespeare

References

See also

External links

Search another word or see epitaphon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature