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Wheeler English

Lines & Rhymes: Epitaphs

from The teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.

Most epitaphs are sober and serious:

Epitaph on Elizabeth, L.H.

Wouldst thou hear what man can say
        In a little? Reader, stay.
Underneath this stone doth lie
        As much beauty as could die;
Which in life did harbor give
        To more virtue than doth live.
If at all she had a fault,
        Leave it buried in this vault.
One name was Elizabeth,
        Th' other let it sleep with death;
Fitter, where it died to tell,
        Than that it lived at all. Farewell

-Ben Johnson

An epitaph (from Greek, meaning "upon a tomb") is an inscription on a tomb, or writing suitable for that purpose.

The epitaph can be in prose or poetry; if poetry, it can be in any rhythmical pattern or none, rhymed or unrhymed. It should not be confused with the elegy, which, although often similar to the epitaph in subject and tone, is quite a bit longer.

Epitaphs range from the lofty to the coarse, from the sublimely serious to the shockingly hilarious. Some people have used satire to write their enemy's epitaph long before the enemy died.

The earliest examples of epitaphs, carved in stone, are from ancient Egypt. The Greeks and Romans became conscious of the epitaph as a literary form. Elegies were written throughout the Middle Ages, too, but it wasn't until the 15th century in England that the epitaph developed into an exceptionally high art.

Here are some examples of epitaphs.

Underneath this sod lies John Round,
Who was lost at sea, and never was found.

For a girl dead at seventeen:
Sleep soft in dust until the Almighty will,
Then rise, unchanged, and be an angel still.

and another:
Here lies I
Killed by a sky
Rocket in my eye.

The following prose epitaph was written to commemorate a man who was scalded to death:

"Sacred to the memory of our 'steamed friend."

figures of speech