The recommended format for an epitaph is a short, concise and pithy, series of verses, typically one to four lines long. An epitaph's composer attempts, either for themselves or for a loved one, to convey a strong feeling and consider to whom the sentiment is addressed. An epitaph may summarize a life, deliver a message to family, reflect on morality, or quote a favorite Bible passage or literary work.
The sentiments expressed in an epitaph vary widely. Ideally they not only deliver a message, but give visitors a glimpse into the personality of the deceased. While many epitaphs have a tragic tone, others can be celebratory, ironic or humorous. The author H.G. Wells demonstrated an ironic sentiment with his epitaph, "Goddamn you all: I told you so," while Dorothy Parker left the world with the humorous quote, "Excuse my dust."
A well-written epitaph factors in the intended audience. Some verses make a statement to the world, such as, "Here lies the poet Robert Frost. He had a lover’s quarrel with the world." Other words speak directly to the graveside visitor, such as the epitaph which reads, "Stranger, if you pass this grave don’t smirk, because it only holds a dog."