An Epitaph any commemorative inscription upon a monument, especially a tomb or gravestone. The word epitaph derives from the Greek epi, meaning upon, and taphos, a tomb. Naturally, brevity and point are the principal things to be aimed at in such memorials, and, as the elemental human emotions are ever the same, we find a striking similarity between ancient and modern epitaphs. The oldest we have are those of the Egyptians, written on the sarcophaguses, but these are brief and formal, being merely a record of the name and condition of the deceased, with a prayer to Osiris or Anubis. Quite different are the early Greek epitaphs, which often both in form and substance evince fine literary skill. The earlier examples are mostly in elegiac verse. None are better than those of heroes who have fallen in battle, and of these the classical example is that on the three hundred martyrs to patriotism at Thermopylae, ascribed to Simonides:
Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
That here obedient to their laws we lie.
The Roman epitaphs usually contain a more or less bare record of facts. On the urns the letters D. M. or D. M. S. (Diis Manibus or Diis Manibus Sacrum) are usually followed merely by the name of the deceased, his age, and condition, with the name of the person who caused the urn to be made. These characters were often adopted from mere conservatism by Christians, and we find them conjoined with purely Christian sentiments in the catacombs at Rome. The ashes of the dead were usually placed along the sides of the great highways leading into Rome, hence the appropriateness of the common commencement, Siste Viator the stop traveler to be seen in so many English churchyards. One feature not uncommon in Roman inscriptions was an execration upon the disturber of the sepulchre -- the reader will remember that on Shakespeare's tomb at Stratford-on-Avon, most probably from the pen of the great dramatist himself.
Long after the Roman empire had crumbled into ruins, the Latin tongue continued to be used for inscriptions, but in England we occasionally find French used as early as the 13th century. It was hardly, however, till the time of Elizabeth that epitaphs became really literary; then and after we find them written in admirable epigrammatic form by Ben Jonson, Milton, and many others. Pope's English epitaphs were long famous, and also those by Dr Johnson in Latin. The latter's answer to the famous round-robin signed by Gibbon, Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, Warton, and others, requesting that he should write the epitaph for Goldsmith in English, was that he would never consent to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription. It is no doubt true that no language lends itself so well to dignity in brief simplicity as the Latin, but the argument from its stability and universality becomes weaker with every generation.
The naturally epigrammatic turn of the French mind peculiarly adapts it for the epitaph, and in French collections very felicitous examples are to be found both in Latin and in French, such as the Tandem felix, of the Count de Tenia; the touching epitaph to a mother, 'La premiere au rendezvous;' ("The first to our meeting") and that written by Piron for himself after his rejection by the Academy:
Ci-git Piron, qui ne fut jamais rien,
Pas meme Academicien.
Here lies Piron, who never amounted to anything
Not even an Academic
A large number of the earlier monuments in Britain were destroyed by unfortunate iconoclastic zeal at the Reformation, and after the triumph of the Puritan revolution. The epitaphs to be found in the parish churchyards of England display every variety of taste, from pure pathos, simplicity, and dignified eulogy to painful would-be wit and even vulgar buffoonery.
See Weever's Ancient Funeral Monuments (1631; ed. by Tooke, 1767); Philip Labbe, Thesaurus Epitaphiorum (Paris, 1666); De la Place, Recueil d'Epitaphes (3 vols. Paris, 1782); Pettigrew's Chronicles of the Tombs (1857); Northend, Book of Epitaphs (New York, 1873); J. R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature: a Choice Collection of American Epitaphs (1876); and W. Andrews, Curious Epitaphs (1883).
We have here collected a number of epitaphs ranging from the touching to the irreverent.