This poem, as its title suggests, is an epitaph. This means that it was written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, this type of poem also serves as an elegy. Epitaphs are tributes to someone who the writer, or the listener, cared for and who passed away. They can be written for or by anyone. This particular poem has become incredibly popular. It’s often read at funerals and memorial services due to the fact that it powerfully conveys a moving attitude toward death.
This poem rose to prominence after it was featured on an episode of CBS’s NCIS. It was used in episode 9 from Season 18 of the series when Emily Fornell, played by Juliette Angelo, passed away from an overdose.
‘Epitaph’ by Merrit Malloy is a thoughtful poem that conveys a speaker’s wishes after they pass away.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by telling the listener/s that they want their life and death to do as much good for the world as possible. This means that their body should be given away to those who need it, as well as their memory utilized in the best way. The speaker wants the listener to consider the love they shared and rather than mourn it, use it to better the world. The speaker doesn’t want anyone to cry for them. Instead, people should cry for and pay attention to those who are still alive and suffering. Turn to them and use whatever energy “you” have to improve their lives.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of love, memory, and change. Their speaker wants to inspire change through their memory. They directly address their own death and free the listener to live their life without mourning the loss. They would prefer that anyone listening to the poem share their love freely in order to improve the lives of others without worrying about the speaker who has passed away. Their love was a powerful one and can and should be used to make the world a better place.
Structure and Form
‘Epitaph’ by Merrit Malloy is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length, from two words up to six or seven. This feature, in addition to the poet’s use of enjambment and syntax, gives the poem a conversational tone. The speaker is addressing their own death with clear eyes and simple words. They have no illusions about what death is like and they know exactly how they want to be regarded after they’re gone.
Throughout ‘Epitaph,’ Malloy makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: occurs when the poet uses the same words, images, ideas, or even sounds in their work. In this case, the poet’s speaker repetitively asks that they be given “away” after they die.
- Alliteration: seen through the use of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “At least let me live” in stanza four and “Hands,” repeated twice in line three of stanza five.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the fourth stanza. There are numerous examples throughout this poem.
Stanzas One and Two
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
And give them
What you need to give to me.
In the first stanza of ‘Epitaph,’ the speaker begins by directly addressing what they want to have happen to them when they die. They want what’s left to be given away “To children / And old men that wait to die.” This initial line is striking and powerful. They’re suggesting that they want to give away their physical body in whatever way they can, benefiting those who might need parts of what’s left. There’s no hesitation in the speaker’s request. They’re very determined that this is the right thing for them to do.
While addressing the listener, the speaker makes it clear that they don’t want anyone to spend undue time crying over their passing. If “you” want to cry, turn instead and cry for “your brother / Walking the street beside you.” They don’t want their death to be anyone’s focus. There are far more important things to consider, like living people suffering and in need. The love “you” wish you could give to the deceased speaker should be channeled into helping others. This is an incredibly selfless way of looking at death. It’s clear the speaker wants something positive to come out of their passing.
Stanzas Three and Four
I want to leave you something,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on in your eyes
And not your mind.
The third stanza is four lines long and, like the first stanza, is incredibly direct. The speaker provides an explanation for why they’re considering their own death so selflessly. They want something good to come out of it. “Something better / Than words / Or sounds.” They can make a physical change, whether it’s through how their body is used after their death to the good they can inspire in others.
The speaker is well aware of how others are going to mourn their passing and look for them every day. But, rather than longing for the speaker, those listening to this poem should “let [them] live on in your eyes / And not your mind.” This will mean that they channel the speaker’s good intentions and heart in everything they do.
Stanzas Five and Six
You can love me most
So, when all that’s left of me
Give me away.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker adds that the best way for anyone to love esteem is by “letting / Hands touch hands / By letting bodies touch bodies.” This beautiful passage asks that the listener or listeners remain connected to the world around them and inspire unity and community. By connecting with others and sharing love, the world is made a better place. That is all the speaker really wants to see happen.
The final stanza summarizes everything the speaker has already said about their passing. They want to be given away, shared in a way that improves the lives of as many people as possible. The love they shared with the listener can live on in a new way.
The poem was written sometime before August 1985 when it was published. It’s unclear exactly when Merrit Malloy wrote ‘Epitaph.’
This beautiful poem was included in The People Who Didn’t Say Goodbye. The collection was published in 1985 and includes illustrations.
Merrit Malloy is a contemporary poet and novelist. Her works include The People Who Didn’t Say Goodbye, My Song for Him Who Never Sang to Me, and Things I Meant To Say To You When We Were Old. She was selected for The Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Anthology Original.
The poem was used to commemorate the death of a well-loved character, Emily Fornell, played by Juliette Angelo, who passed away after an overdose. Viewers can find the poem featured in Season 18 Episode 9.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Epitaph,’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray – a poem about the passing of the poet’s friend, Richard West. It’s a simple contemplation of the truth about life and death in free-flowing poetic lines. Read more Thomas Gray poems.
- Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep by Mary Frye – welcomes death and offers comfort to those who might mourn the speaker’s passing.
- Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson – about the journey into death from life and was written by Tennyson in his advancing years when he was starting to think about death. Explore more Alfred Lord Tennyson poetry.
Also of interest may be 8 Truly Touching Poems to Read at Funerals.