Epitaph – Concept, origin, history and famous examples

We explain what an epitaph is, the various forms it can take, its origin and history. Also, examples of famous epitaphs.

Epitaphs are usually written on a grave, headstone, or in a significant place.

What is an epitaph?

An epitaph is called a certain type of inscription, verse or phrase with which a deceased person is honored or remembered, usually inscribed or engraved on his grave, headstone or in some place significantly linked to his death.

Traditionally the epitaphs consisted of phrases in verse and endowed with a poetic or religious sense, such as psalms, biblical fragments or even aphorisms or small elegiac poems (laments).

Too it is common that they are phrases of the deceased himself, especially when it comes to an artist or politician, or a famous figure, or that summarize the vital achievements of the deceased for those who visit his tomb in the future. They can also consist of a simple farewell to the deceased’s loved ones.

In general, every epitaph consists of the name of the deceased, his honorific titles (if any), his date of birth and death, and the epitaph itself, that is, the phrase of farewell or remembrance.

Origin of the epitaph

The word epitaph has a Greco-Latin origin, since it goes back to the voice epitaphium from Latin, heir in turn to Greek epi, “About”, and taphos, “Grave”, name of the funeral prayers with which the dead Athenians were honored on the battlefield.

These prayers used to be recited during the funeral and annually on memorial days. They were then directly inscribed on headstones and graves, becoming allegorical phrases and remembrances.

Thus the epitaphs were born, which initially were always tried to be short and simple, so that the walker could read them without interrupting his step. That is why the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 BC) limited them to four hexameter verses.

Examples of epitaphs

Some famous epitaphs, which serve as examples, are the following:

  • “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. He enters us very clean at midnight. It is perfect when it arrives and is placed in our hands. And he hopes that we have learned something from yesterday. “

Epitaph of John wayne (1907-1979), American film actor. It contains a quote from the actor in an interview he gave to Playboy magazine in 1971.

  • “The best is yet to come”

Epitaph of the American singer Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), which corresponds to the title of a famous song of his (“The Best is yet to Come”).

  • Kata ton daimona eaytoy”(Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού)

Epitaph from the grave of the American singer and poet Jim Morrison (1943-1971), whose words in Greek can be translated as “True to your own spirit.”

  • “Workers of the world, unite!”

Epitaph from the tomb of the German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), motto belonging to the Communist Manifesto of his own authorship.

  • “A scholar admired outside of Italy”

Epitaph from the tomb of the Italian poet and philosopher Giácomo Leopardi (1798-1837), died during a cholera epidemic.

  • “Open the grave. At the bottom of this tomb, you can see the sea “

Chilean poet’s tomb epitaph Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948), father of literary creationism, written by himself in life.