Tombstone Tropes 1 – Brief Literary Epitaphs

450full-william-butler-yeatsHere lies… Those two words introduce a classic epitaph just as Once Upon a Time introduces a classic story. In this post I include a variety of literary epitaphs; a later post will deal with some more humorous and off-beat epitaphs culled from graveyards worldwide. It is to the ancient Greeks I turn first in a brief selection of translated epitaphs. According to TheodoraAmong the gems of the Greek anthology familiar to English readers through translations are the epitaphs upon those who had fallen in battle. … In Sparta epitaphs were inscribed only upon the graves of those who had been especially distinguished in war; in Athens they were applied more indiscriminately. They generally contained the name, the descent, the demise, and some account of the life of the person commemorated. It must be remembered, however, that many of the so-called Greek epitaphs are merely literary memorials not intended for monumental inscription, and that in these freer scope is naturally given to general reflections, while less attention is paid to biographical details.

Roman epitaphs, in contrast to those of the Greeks, contained, as a rule, nothing beyond a record of facts.  A remarkable feature of many of the Roman epitaphs was the terrible denunciation they often pronounced upon those who violated the sepulchre. Such denunciations were not uncommon in later times. A well-known instance is furnished in the lines on Shakespeare’s tomb at Stratford-on-Avon, (see below) said to have been written by the poet himself.  Good frend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be y e man y t spares thes stones, And curst be he y t moves my bones.

The epitaphs of Pope (see below) are interesting. He wrote a well-known epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton, but it was not allowed to be included on the tomb in Westminster Abbey. He also wrote about two lovers he knew in Stanton Harcourt:  

I have just passed part of this summer at an old romantic seat of my Lord Harcourt’s, which he has lent me;  it overlooks a common field, where, under the shadow of a haycock, sat two lovers, as constant as ever were found in romance, beneath a spreading beech….  Their love was the talk, but not the scandal of the neighbourhood, for all they aimed at was the blameless possession of each other in marriage.  
It was but this very morning that he obtained her parents’ consent, and it was but till the next week that they were to wait to be happy.  Perhaps this very day, in the intervals of their work, they were talking of their wedding clothes, and John was now matching several kinds of poppies and field flowers to her complexion, to make her a present of knots for the day. 
While they were thus employed (it was on the last day of July), a terrible storm of thunder and lightning arose, and drove the labourers to what shelter the trees or hedges afforded. Sarah, frightened and out of breath, sunk on a haycock, and John (who never separated from her) sat by her side, having raked two or three heaps together to secure her.
Immediately there was heard so loud a crack as if heaven had burst asunder.  The labourers, all solicitous for each other’s safety, called to one another; those who were nearest our lovers, hearing no answer, stepped to the place where they lay.  
They first saw a little smoke, and after, this faithful pair – John with one arm about Sarah’s neck, and the other held over her face, as if to screen her from the lightning.  They were dead.  There was no mark or discolouring on their bodies, only that Sarah’s eyebrow was a little singed, and a small spot between her breasts.  
They were buried next day in one grave, in the parish of Stanton Harcourt, where my Lord Harcourt, at my request, has erected a monument over them.

Pope attempted various epitaphs for the monument but the best known one is that below with its unfortunate pun.

The continuity of the literary tradition which surrounds the epitaph can be seen in the Dryden and the J. V. Cunningham epitaphs below, centuries apart. I have also included some of Kipling’s brief epitaphs. I hope to do a later post on these after my post on non-literary epitaphs. Should you like me to include an epitaph I may have omitted please fill in the comment box below.



Brief Epitaphs from the Ancient Greek

Rest lightly, earth, on Willie the devout.
The dogs will take less time to drag him out.

translated by Raymond Oliver


Epitaph: Justice

The poet Hipponax lies here.
In justice, this is only fair.
His lines were never dark or deep.
Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep.

translated by Fred Chappell


Remember Eubolus, who lived and died sober?
This is his grave. We might as well drink then:
We’ll all drop anchor in the same final harbour.

Leonidas of Tarentum
translated by Fleur Adcock


Someone is glad that I, Theodorus, am dead
Another will be glad when that someone is dead
We are all in arrears to death.

translated by Peter Jay


Be ashamed, O mountains and seas: these were men of valorous breath.
Assume, like pale chattels, an ashen silence at death.

translated by Michael R. Burch


You were the morning star among the living.
In death, O Evening Star, you light the dead.

translated by Willis Barnstone


Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
but go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.

translated by Michael R. Burch


Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.

translated by Michael R. Burch


Here, the tomb of Timokritos, a hero in the wars.
It is the coward whom Ares spares – not the brave.

translated by Willis Barnstone


At Anakreon’s Tomb

I often sang this, and even from the grave I shout:
Drink, for soon you must put on this garment of dust.

Julianus (Julian the Prefect of Egypt)
translated by Willis Barnstone


Stripped of her stripling, if asked, she’d confess:
“I am now less than nothingness.”


translated by Michael R. Burch


epitaphI, the actor, Philistion
Soothed men’s pain with comedy and laughter,
A man of parts, I often died–
But never quite like this.

translated by Michael Wolfe

image of the tombstone
of the actor Philistion



Brief Literary Epitaphs



[Gravestone in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon]

William Shakespeare



On the snuff of a candle the night before he died

Cowards fear to die; but courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

Sir Walter Raleigh


For the Tomb of the Little Dog Zabot

Your house was small, your body but a puplet;
A shoebox was your grave, your epitaph this couplet.

Petrarch (Translated by Fred Chappell)


Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne’s body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.

John Donne


Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality.

Mrs. Aphra Behn


My Epitaph

Here lies Piron, a complete nullibiety,
Not even a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Alexis Piron


Epitaph Intended for  His Wife

Here lies my wife: here let her lie!
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.

John Dryden


Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Alexander Pope


Epitaph on the Stanton-Harcourt Lovers

Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Tho’ very chaste people, to die of a clap.

Alexander Pope


Here lies David Garrick, describe me who can.
An abridgement of all that was pleasant in man.

Oliver Goldsmith


On David Hume  (1711-1776)

Within this circular idea
Called vulgarly a tomb,
The ideas and impressions lie
That constituted Hume.

Anonymous addition to his tomb in the Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh


Epitaph on an Infant

Ere sin could blight or sorrow fade,
Death came with friendly care;
The opening bud to Heaven conveyed,
And bade it blossom there.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Here lies the preacher, judge, and poet, Peter
Who broke the laws of God, and man, and metre.

Peter Robinson (19th century)



Here lies with death auld Grizzel Grim
Rineluden’s ugly witch.
O death how horrid is thy taste,
To lie with such a bitch!

Robert Burns



Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveler, and piss.

George Gordon, Lord Byron



If Paris that brief flight allow,
My humble tomb explore!
It bears: “Eternity, be thou
My refuge!” and no more.

Matthew Arnold




Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by.

Image: The grave of W. B. Yeats
in St. Columba’s Church of Ireland Churchyard
in Drumcliff, County Sligo.

William Butler Yeats




from Epitaphs of the War

The Coward

I could not look on Death, which being known,
Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Rudyard Kipling



Ye say we sleep;
But nay,we wake;
Life was that strange and chequered dream
Only for waking’s sake.

Walter de la Mare


When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
“His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Hilaire Belloc


220px-Cecil_Day_Lewis_headstone,_geographShall I be gone long?
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say.
Ask my song.

C. Day Lewis

Image: the grave of Cecil Day Lewis
at St. Michael’s Church
in Stinsford, Dorset



Epitaph for a Columnist

Believing that his hate for queers
Proclaimed his love for God
He now (of all queer things, my dears)
Lies under his first sod.

Paul Dehn


Epitaph for a Postal Clerk

Here lies, neatly wrapped in sod,
Henry Hankins c/o God.
On the day of Resurrection,
May be opened for inspection.

X. J. Kennedy


Epitaph: The Playboy

It was wine and women
That did me in.
If I get a chance
They’ll do it again.

Fred Chappell


Epitaph: Lydia

She enjoyed making love
In any exotic location.
Now Lydia lies here.
It’s not the first occasion.

Fred Chappell



Here lies Sir Tact, a diplomatic fellow,
whose silence was not golden, but just yellow.

Timothy Steele


Here lies my wife. Eternal peace
Be to us both with her decease.

J. V. Cunningham



The Curse on Shakespeare’s grave.



Athenian Epitaphs translated by Michael R. Burch.

The Theodora page on epitaphs.

The Wikipedia page on epitaphs.

Famous Literary Epitaphs.




3 thoughts on “Tombstone Tropes 1 – Brief Literary Epitaphs

  1. This reminds me of the great Cees Nooteboom’s book “Tumbas of poets and thinkers” which I have just translated into English – anyone want to publish?


  2. Pingback: Tombstone Tropes 2 – Odd Rhyming Epitaphs | Brief Poems

  3. Pingback: Dog Collars – Brief Poems by Alexander Pope | Brief Poems

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