Do's and Don'ts of Epitaphs

What Is an Epitaph? (And How to Write a Good One)

Short, concise, and crisp. That is an epitaph.

If you have been asked to write an epitaph, you probably have questions. What should you say? How many lines should you write?

You might not be a wordsmith, but you will be able to write the perfect epitaph upon finishing this article!

What Is an Epitaph?

An epitaph is a phrase or short description written in memory of a person who has died, especially as an inscription on a tombstone.

What’s the Difference Between Epitaph and…

Obituary  

An obituary is a news article that accounts for the death of a person. It typically reports the person’s life and information about the upcoming funeral. Obituaries are printed in newspapers and online, and are much longer and more detailed than an epitaph.

Eulogy

A eulogy is a speech that praises someone who has just died. A family member will read the eulogy at the funeral service. When writing a eulogy, you should touch on a few key points. Write about what his/her family life was like, what his/her career achievements were, and what hobbies and interests mattered the most to him/her.

Elegy

An elegy is a poem or lament for the dead. An elegy is usually nostalgic and melancholy. It will use formal language and structure; it may express the speaker’s anger about death. A short elegy can be used as an epitaph.

Epigraph

An epigraph is a short standalone quote, line, or paragraph that appears at the beginning of a book, paper, or chapter. If the same phrase appears in a book and on a tombstone, the former would be an epigraph, and the latter would be an epitaph.

Inscription

The definition of an inscription is a record that is cut, impressed, painted, printed, or written on stone, brick, metal, or other hard surface. A brief, usually informal dedication; usually a monument, book, or work of art. Inscriptions can be done for all sorts of things, but an epitaph is only done for someone (or something) that has passed.

How To Write an Epitaph

An epitaph has three parts. Name, dates, and quote.

  1. Write the full name of the person. Make sure the spelling is correct.
  2. Add the birth and death dates. Verify that the dates are correct.
  3. Write a phrase or two that captures the essence of your loved one. Or choose a quote or Bible verse to appear on the headstone. You can write your own or look at the many examples below.

If you’re going to write your own, start by writing down a list of your loved one’s characteristics and interests. Write down everything you can think of: Loving. Bold. Tacos.

Of course, you may or may not end up using every term on the inscription (“tacos” might fly in some families, but not all!), but this practice will get you started.

Here are some popular epitaph terms to consider:

LovingDevotedBeloved
FunnyWittyJoyful
GenuinePatientGenerous
PassionateReliableGentle
StrongFaithfulCaring
ResourcefulIntegrityDiligent
ThoughtfulKindArtistic
CreativeAccomplishedBrave
CharmingSincereUnderstanding
LoyalAdventurousCheerful

Along with descriptive words like those, include on your list hobbies (sewing, sports, gardening), interests (philosophy, DC Comics, fashion), things they enjoyed (tacos, obviously), and things that were important to them (being there for friends, having fun with the family, living out their faith).

Finish up by going over the examples in the next section. Look for phrases and words that ring true. Then, combine the most important 1-3 ideas to highlight who they were and how you’ll remember them. It will be tough to keep it brief, but it can be done.

Just remember two things. First, no one phrase (even if it’s really long, like a paragraph or two) can fully represent a loved one. People are too complex and interesting for that The tendency is to keep adding words to try to “capture” their essence, but it can’t be done so just do you best.

Second, simple is always classy. Keep it short and to the point and you won’t regret it later on. We’ve engraved plenty of cremation urns with inscriptions that are classy and plenty of ones that… well, just aren’t. There’s a difference.

The examples in the next section will help show you what this might mean.

Epitaph Examples

If you need to write an epitaph, here are some great ones to build off to create one that is just right for your loved one.

10 Famous Epitaphs

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

(On April 3, 1882, an unarmed James was shot in the back of the head while fixing a picture hanging on his wall by Bob Ford. Ford was forever known as a coward.)

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.”

Bette Davis: “She did it the hard way.”

Frank Sinatra: “The best is yet to come.”

Mel Blanc: “That’s all, folks!”

Dean Martin: “Everybody loves somebody, sometime.”

Al Capone: “My Jesus, mercy.”

Ludolph van Ceulen: “3.14159265358979323846264338327950”

(The tombstone of Ludolph van Ceulen in Leiden is inscribed with his famous 32-digit approximation to pi.)

Edgar Allan Poe:  “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’”

Merv Griffin: “I will not be right back after this message.”

10 Funny Epitaphs

Anonymous: “I told you I was sick.”

Janet M.: “If you can read this, you are standing on my boobs.”

John Yeast: “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”

Margaret Daniels: “She always said her feet were killing her, but no one believed her.”

John Penny: “Reader, if cash thou art In want of any, Dig 4 feet deep, And thou wilt find a Penny.”

Rodney Dangerfield: “There goes the neighborhood.”

Frances E. Thatcher: “Damn, it’s dark down here.”

Unknown: “He loved bacon. Oh, and his wife and kids too.”

Russell J. Larsen: “Two things I love most, good horses and beautiful women, and when I die, I hope they tan this old hide of mine and make it into a ladies riding saddle, so I can rest in peace between the two things I love most.”

Jerry L. Farrer: “I was supposed to live to be 102 and be shot by a jealous husband.”

10 Beautiful Epitaphs

The door to Heaven opened wide, and our beloved stepped inside.

You shared our joy, our hopes, our dreams. We thank you for being that wonderful you.

For love never dies.

Though death divides fond memories cling.

Our brief partings on Earth will appear one day as nothing beside the joy of eternity together.

I will sleep in peace until you come to me.

This life is but a passing dream; we soon shall wake in heaven.

I’ll see you on the other side of the stars.

Life is not forever. Love is.

I believe that if I should die, and you were to walk near my grave, from the very depths of the earth, I would hear your footsteps.

10 Epitaphs for Mothers

A mother holds her children’s hands for a while, their hearts forever.

A kinder, gentler woman you will never meet again.

Goodbye to a wonderful mother.

She had a kindly word for each, and she died beloved by all.

Your love continues to light my way; your memory will never leave me.

Her love knew no bounds.

Her friendship was an inspiration, her love a blessing.

Just whisper my name in your heart, and I will be there.

To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die.

Mom’s love and tenderness touched our hearts.

Related: 50 Beautiful “In Loving Memory” Quotes

10 Epitaphs for Fathers

Dad’s friendship was an inspiration, his love a blessing.

Resting with those he loved.

Father’s greatest joy was making others happy.

His joy was in serving others.

Dad’s mission on earth was fulfilled.

No man is indispensable, but Dad is irreplaceable.

The world’s loss was heaven’s gain when God took you home.

A man, greatly beloved.

A loving father, tender and kind. What a beautiful memory you leave behind.

I miss you, Dad. We will see each other again.

Related: 33 Inspiring Life Celebration Quotes

Epitaphs can identify the deceased, summarize an entire life or profession, or express tributes from mourners left behind. There is even a day dedicated to this event – November 2, “National Write Your Own Epitaph Day.”

Read next: 12 Headstone Inscription Tips to Get It **Just** Right

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