In its simplest form, an epitaph is a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies. These tributes are usually quite brief and may be written by anyone. The writer might be someone close to the deceased, like a family member, or even the deceased themselves. There are instances in which the poet crafts a speaker who foretold their own death or is speaking from beyond the grave in remembrance of themselves.
Or, in even more interesting circumstances, epitaphs are written by living people expressly with the intent of the inscription appearing on their own tombstone after they’re gone. William Shakespeare is an example. The Bard is buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, Warwickshire. The epitaph on his tomb, which he wrote, reads in part:
[…] Within this monument: Shakespeare, with whom
Quick nature doed; whose name doth deck his tomb
Far more than cost; sith all that he had writ
Leaves living art but page to serve his wit. […]
Poets often try to encompass something of the main themes of the deceased’s life or make clear to readers of the inscription the accomplishments their character, or perhaps even they themselves, completed.
Epitaphs in Poetry
For an example within poetry, let’s take a look at ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. Best known for his novel Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson was also a prolific writer of children’s poetry. But, in this instance, he turned to something a bit darker. The poem, which can in its entirety be read here, was inscribed on his grave. Here is a brief excerpt from the text:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will
In these lines, his speaker, who may very well be the poet himself, gives directions to those who are going to deal with his body after his death. Through the use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, these very rhythmic lines create a peaceful image of death. A reader can move through them steadily and calmly, understanding how this speaker saw his own life and how he hoped to enter death.
There are many more examples of poems written as epitaphs and those in which epitaphs play a role of some kind. Take a look at the poems below for more examples of how poets use epitaphs: