"Epitaph: A belated advertisement for a line of goods that has been permanently discontinued." American humorist Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb, author of "Exit Laughing" (1941)
They are as varied as the souls they commemorate. Often touching, sometimes disturbing and occasionally hilarious, epitaphs are an attempt to capture in death the essence of a life--usually in 25 words or less.
"More than any other literary form," writes Charles Wallis in American Epitaphs: Grave and Humorous, "the epitaph mirrors intimately the thoughts and the skills of the common man . . . Epitaphs suggest a social pattern of a locality and of a generation. They reflect the temper and mood of a period."
The earliest surviving inscriptions are those of ancient Egypt, which contained a prayer and a record of the deceased's name, descent and office. Early Greek epitaphs were often elegant poetry or prose, while Roman tombs were inscribed with the facts and a curse to warn intruders against tampering with the grave.
Verse epitaphs became popular in Elizabethan times, and epitaph writing became a trade. In the "Arte of English Poesie," George Puttenham advised epitaph writers to pen a "few verses, pithie, quicke and sententious, for the passer-by to peruse and judge upon without any long tariaunce."
The fashion in epitaphs became so flowery, that one wondered, as English essayist Charles Lamb put it, "Where are all the bad people buried?" In 1791, author John Bowden tried to remedy the situation by admonishing inscription writers: "It is highly necessary that the Praise bestowed on the Dead should be restrained within the Bounds of Truth."
Usually an epitaph is penned by a loved one, but throughout the ages distinguished--and ordinary--people have written their own. Among them:
Joseph II of Austria: Here lies Joseph who failed in everything he undertook.
English poet John Gay: Life is a jest, and all things show it; I thought so once, and now I know it.
English satirist Jonathan Swift: Where fierce indignation can no longer tear my heart.
Statesman Benjamin Franklin: The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents worn out and stript of its lettering and gilding, lies here food for the worms. Yet the work itself shall not be lost. For it shall, as he believes, appear once more in a new and more beautiful edition, corrected and amended by the author.
Writer and editor H.L. Mencken: If after I depart this vale, you remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner or wink your eye at a homely girl.
Writer Dorothy Parker: Excuse my dust.
And, of course, actor W.C. Fields': On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.
Now for our contemporaries. Here's how some say they'd like to be remembered. Without being macabre about it, you might even want to inscribe your own--or someone else's--memorial today.