10 Great Literary Epitaphs

Books Lists

It’s that time of year when we confront our own mortality with a bit of festive cheer. While there’s always reason to celebrate when the corpses walking across your lawn are only after your Butterfingers, not everything surrounding Halloween can transcend the maudlin and be dipped in caramel. Tombstones, for example, are not made with sugar. It must be difficult to choose an epitaph for someone whose very life has been defined by their fantastic relationship with words. Some writers are courteous enough to supply their own epitaphs, while others just depart this world leaving the rest of us with the job of summing things up for them. A great epitaph can be chilling. The marriage of poignancy with the macabre begets some seriously deep reflection. Our post-Halloween treat to you this year is 10 great reasons to forget about your Snickers bar for a while:

1. Emily Dickinson
According to her own posthumously published words, Emily Dickinson “could not stop for Death,” but that didn’t prevent Death from stopping for her on May 15, 1886. Her epitaph reflects the reserved, modest poet we have come to know, saying not that she had “died,” but that she had been “Called Back.” While that might explain some of her more obvious predilections (death, for example), who is to say she didn’t just take a chariot “back” to Miami so she could work on her tan? Just think about that for a while.

2. Oscar Wilde
Even Oscar Wilde was unable to outwit the Grim Reaper with his famous last words, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” The epitaph on his tomb, however, is rather mawkish: “And alien tears will fill for him, / Pity’s long-broken urn, / For his mourners will be outcast men, / And outcasts always mourn.” Taken from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the implication is that, for Wilde, death is another prison sentence. But as tragic as that sentiment is, it’s hard not to hear Wilde adding a witty “the food in here is awful” from the grave.

3. Spike Milligan
Funny man and master of literary nonsense Spike Milligan’s headstone says, “Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite,” which is Irish Gaelic for “I told you I was ill.” This was according to Milligan’s wishes. The epitaph, that is, not the illness.

4. Robert Frost
Robert Frost wrote his epitaph years before his death, in the final line of his poem “The Lesson for Today,” which ends with: “And were an epitaph to be my story / I’d have a short one ready for my own. / I would have written of me on my stone: / I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” Sadly, not all lovers can kiss and make up. Frost was 88 when he died, though, so he was probably close to done with that romance anyway.

5. Sylvia Plath
Anyone who has made the pilgrimage up the long, steep hill to Heptonstall can tell you about the overwhelming loneliness and isolation they encounter while visiting Sylvia Plath’s grave, which reads: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.” In his choosing of these words for her stone, Plath’s estranged husband, Ted Hughes, seems to have been calling her both a dragon lady and a budding blossom. This is a harsh yet tender send off, particularly as it echoes Plath’s own poem “Epitaph for Fire and Flower,” which states, “Dawn snuffs out star’s spent wick / Even as love’s dear fools cry evergreen.” Plath wrote the poem seven years before snuffing out her own wick in the oven at 23 Fitzroy Road, London, in 1963. At the time of her burial, Hughes attributed the lines on her tombstone to the Bhagavad Gita, but it’s actually a bastardization of a few lines from Monkey by Wu Ch’Eng-En. What’s really great about this one is the multitude of interpretations generated not only by the presence of the lotus flower (to which the Buddhists attribute several rather apt meanings), but also by Hughes’s decision to plant this flower in the murky soil of West Yorkshire and then to get the quote wrong, all of which have added further fodder to a literary legacy that will probably never die.

6. Henry Miller
Although this one has never been written in stone, in 1978, an aging Henry Miller was asked how he would pen his own epitaph. “I’m going to beat those bastards,” was his reply. This one doesn’t need the stone. It’s rock hard and still out there.

7. Percy Bysshe Shelley
One has to wonder how Shelley would have felt about the intentional irony of having not his own words, but Shakespeare’s song for Ariel (also known as “Full Fathom Five”) inscribed above his ashes: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” Shelley had been sailing around Italy on the Don Juan, which he had renamed Ariel in homage to that fierce creature from The Tempest, when his ship sank in (but, of course) a storm. In Shelley’s pocket at the time of his death were not his own poems, but those of the recently deceased John Keats. Shelley died with and is immortalized by the genius of other men. To add further insult to injury, legend has it that Shelley’s heart had refused to burn, and it was retrieved from his pyre and given to his grieving wife, Mary, only to be stuffed into a drawer somewhere. Then, many years later, it was supposedly buried someplace else entirely, leaving this poet to suffer eternal separation from his words, his wife and his sea-soaked heart.

8. Primo Levi
Primo Levi had wanted his epitaph to come from Homer, but instead, it came from his own odyssey and the numbers tattooed on his arm: “174517.” It’s amazing how powerful six digits can be.

9. William Butler Yeats
In his self-penned epitaph, “Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by!” Yeats seems to be advising us not to linger over his dead body for very long, but the depth of those words is rather grounding. The lines are from his poem “Under Ben Bulben,” which tells us that, “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.” But is he? Yeats died and was originally buried in France, and his exhumation and return to Ireland has made some question who is actually buried in Yeats’s grave. According to Louise Foxcroft, it’s probably her great-uncle, Alfred Hollis (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/09/poetry.wbyeats). Today’s forensic scientists could have quickly solved this mystery, but it’s unlikely they could have deciphered Yeats’s cryptic epitaph any better than we have.

10. F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s epitaph immortalizes his greatest line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We might never overcome the things we once were, but like Jay Gatsby and Fitzgerald himself, we keep on trying. When you’ve given up on the green light, you’ve given up on life.

Here’s hoping you get a great epitaph, too, old sport.

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