An epitaph (from Greek ἐπιτάφιον epitaphion "a funeral oration" from ἐπί epi "at, over" and τάφος taphos "tomb") is a short text honoring a deceased person, strictly speaking that is 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 poem 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 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 where this is impossible, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) 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.
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
that here, obedient to their law, we lie.
I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.
To save your world you asked this man to die:
Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?
Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg þe dust encloased heare.
Blese be þe man þat spares þes stones,
And curst be he þat moves my bones.
In modern English:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
I told you I was ill.
That's all folks.
If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again.
Consider, friend, as you pass by: As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you too shall be. Prepare, therefore, to follow me.
- — Scottish tombstone epitaph
Epitaph for heart of Frédéric Chopin
Grave of W. B. Yeats; Drumecliff, Co. Sligo
The epitaph on voice actor Mel Blanc's tombstone
Plaque marking Heather O'Rourke's interment
Epitaphs in music
In a more figurative sense, music in memory of deceased people has been composed. Igor Stravinsky composed in 1958 Epitaphium for flute, clarinet and harp. In 1967 Krzysztof Meyer called his Symphony No. 2 for choir and orchestra Epitaphium Stanisław Wiechowicz in memoriam. Jeffrey Lewis composed Epitaphium — Children of the Sun for narrator, chamber choir, piano, flute, clarinet and percussion. Bronius Kutavičius composed in 1998 Epitaphium temporum pereunti. Valentin Silvestrov composed in 1999 Epitaph L.B. (Епітафія Л.Б.) for viola (or cello) and piano. In 2007 Graham Waterhouse composed Epitaphium for string trio as a tribute to the memory of his father William Waterhouse.
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