What is an Epitaph?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An epitaph is a brief literary composition in honor of someone who is dead, or a carving of such a composition onto a headstone. Epitaphs in cemeteries around the world are frequent sources of comment and discussion, as they run the gamut from humorous to somber. A well composed or chosen epitaph conveys some sense of the spirit of the deceased, hopefully leaving visitors with food for thought.

Epitaphs are typically carved onto headstones.
Epitaphs are typically carved onto headstones.

The practice of carving epitaphs is quite ancient. Archaeological evidence shows that both the Greeks and the Romans regularly included epitaphs on their tombs, and even older cultures probably did so as well. The term “epitaph” is of Greek origin, being derived from epi- for “at or over” and taphos, for “tomb or funeral rites.” The concept of the epitaph has persisted through numerous generations and cultures, with various trends in epitaph styling waxing and waning.

A verse from the Bible may be used as an epitaph.
A verse from the Bible may be used as an epitaph.

Either verse or prose is suitable for an epitaph. If an epitaph is in verse, people commonly choose to quote famous verse, often including only a segment, with the understanding that visitors will know the context and infer a deeper meaning. It is also, of course, possible to compose new verse for a headstone. Some people may choose verse from the Bible or another religious text, in some cases simply referencing a famous passage, as in “Psalm XXV, 10,” assuming that people are familiar with the text.

Some epitaphs are meant to be somber, reminding guests of the inevitability of death. Others celebrate the decedent, either seriously or lightheartedly, and they sometimes provide details about a person's life, such as whether or not the decedent was a parent. In some cases, epitaphs also detail the manner of death, especially if it is considered heroic. An epitaph can provide interesting clues into how someone lived, and what people thought of him or her.

Choosing an epitaph is quite a challenge. Some decedents make it easier for their survivors by picking out an epitaph ahead of time, especially if they want epitaphs with a humorous intent, like “just let me finish this row” for the tombstone of a knitter. Survivors may also choose to take an epitaph from the writing of a decedent, if he or she was a famous author, or they may choose quotes from books or poems which were loved by the decedent.

A visit to any cemetery will yield a rich crop of epitaphs, some of which are quite touching. Some people belong to organizations which collect interesting or noteworthy epitaphs, posting them on websites for others to enjoy; you can probably uncover a few with your favorite search engine.

Epitaphs may be chosen by relatives as a tribute to the deceased.
Epitaphs may be chosen by relatives as a tribute to the deceased.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I found a possible evidence to support the George Washington epitaph in a book about the role of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in resisting slavery. The epitaph is attributed to the tombstone of an escaped slave, named George Washington, who might have been part of the underground railroad. The stone is on a mountain east of Harrisburg. The book, Biography of an Anti-Slavery City, is by Todd M. Mealy.


Any citations for the George Washington epitaph? I can't locate any legitimate sources. It doesn't seem to be inscribed anywhere at his tomb at Mt. Vernon.


@alex94- Here are some of my favorite famous epitaphs:

Jesse James – “Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here”

Isaac Newton – “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light”

Wyatt Earp – “Nothing’s so sacred as honor and nothing’s so loyal as love”

George Washington – “Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s word; then all prejudice of race vanishes away”


I am doing a report in my Death and Dying course and we have to include some famous epitaphs. Does anyone have any suggestions or epitaph examples?

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