The problem with eulogies is that people get them confused with epitaphs. But there’s a good reason for the confusion and we can blame it all on the Romans.
Both words – epitaph and eulogy – can be used to infer an oration in praise of someone who has died. But there is a difference.
The Greek word epitaph combines ‘epi’ with ‘taphos’; it adds ‘upon’ to ‘tomb’. The result was borrowed by the Romans (it’s those tricky Italians wot dunnit, officer), to give us the Latin epitaphium.
Unfortunately, what with the Romans being great orators and all, they used the word epitaphium to infer a eulogy, a speech given at a funeral. Epitaphium came north through France and the French and finally finished up in Blighty as epitaph. Hence the confusion.
The best epitaphs are timeless and thought-provoking. For my part, I prefer inscriptions that aren’t overly sentimental, but that’s because the more simple epitaphs often hide a GREAT story. Like this one:
If your eyesight isn’t what it used to be, I can help. The inscription on the marble shield reads, “Here lies interred Henry eldest son of John Plumptre, Esq. born 22d. July 1708, deceased Jan. 3d. 1718–19; In these few and tender years he had to a great degree made himself master of the Jewish, Roman, and English history, the Heathen mythology and the French tongue, and was not inconsiderably advanced in the Latin.“).
Underneath the main body of this epitaph – which, incidentally, you’ll find in St. Mary’s Church in the middle of Nottingham – there’s a scroll on which is inscribed ‘Animam nati his saltem accumulem donis et fungar inani munere’.
If I remember my Vergil well, this means, ‘Let me at least honor the spirit of the descendant with these gifts, and let me perform the useless duty.’ – or if you’d like the urban slang version, ‘As long as the good Lord needs a polyglot, the boy will do well’. I don’t know where to start asking questions about dear Henry, do you?!
Right, that’s enough of that for now (I could do hundreds of these). Here are some famous epitaphs (quite a British slant to this batch):
Alexander the Great
A tomb now suffices for him
whom the world was not enough
once and future king.
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.
“That’s All Folks”
The poetic genius of my country found me
at the plough and threw her inspiring mantle over me.
She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes
and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue.
I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired.
Burton, Sir Richard (not that one, the other one)
Farewell, dear Friend, dead Hero!
The great life
is ended, the great perils, the great joys;
And he to whom adventures were as toys,
who seemed to bear a charm ‘gainst spear or knife
or bullet, now lies silent from all strife
out yonder where the Austrian eagles poise
on Istrian hills, but England, at the noise
of that dread fall, weeps with the hero’s wife.
Oh, last and noblest of the errant knights,
The English soldier and the Arab sheik!
Oh, singer of the East, who loved so well
The deathless wonder of the “Arabian Nights,”
Who touched Camoen’s lute and still would seek
Ever new deeds until the end! Farewell!
Capone, Alphonse (Al)
My Jesus, mercy
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor
Stop, Christian passer-by: Stop, child of God,
And read, with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he–
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.–
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death:
Mercy for praise–to be forgiven for fame–
He ask’d, and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same.
Davis, Sammy Jr.
He did it all
She did it the hard way
A Gentle Man and a Gentleman
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan
Knight, Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters
“W. C. Fields 1880 – 1946”
(Fields’ headstone has just those details on it. No more. Not, as is often reported, ‘Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.’ – the wording proposed by Vanity Fair magazine.
Gustavus III, King of Sweden
(Happy at last)
Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne’s body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.
(Invoked or not invoked, the God is present.)
The body of
Like the cover of an old book
its contents torn out,
and stripped of its lettering and gilding,
lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be wholly lost,
for it will, as he believed, appear once more,
in a new and more perfect edition,
corrected and amended
by the Author.
contains all that was Mortal
Young English Poet
on his Death Bed
in the Bitterness of his Heart
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
(You have to think about this one for a minute before you realise there’s a significant amount of irony in this.)
Lewis, C. S.
Man must endure his going hence.
Workers of all lands unite. The philosophers have only
interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
kata ton daimona eay toy
(Check your Greek. It means ‘True to his own spirit’)
Excuse my dust.
Parker suggested her own epitaph, “Excuse My Dust”, and that’s what’s always quoted. ACTUALLY, there’s a plaque in the memorial garden where her ashes are scattered, which reads: “Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967) Humorist, Writer, Critic, Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph, she suggested, “Excuse My Dust”. This memorial garden is dedicated to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between Black and Jewish people. Dedicated by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, October 20, 1988.”
Wife of Samuel Pepys (who serves the Royal Navy).
She was educated first in a convent, and then in a seminary of France.
She was distinguished by the excellence of both at once,
Gifted with beauty, accomplishments, tongues,
She bore no offspring, for she could not have borne her life.
At length when she had bidden this world a gentle farewell,
(After a journey completed through, we may say, the lovelier sights of Europe) —
A returning pilgrim, she took her departure to wander through a grander world.
Poe, Edgar Allan
Quoth the Raven,
For one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey:
Heroes and Kings! your distance keep;
In peace let one poor Poet sleep,
Who never flatter’d Folks like you:
Let Horace blush, and Virgil too.
Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare!
Blest be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
(Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.)
Shelley, Percy Bysshe
“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
“The best is yet to come.”
Hic depositum est Corpus
IONATHAN SWIFT S.T.D.
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78º
Swift wrote the epitaph himself. He left instructions for it to be carved on black Kilkenny marble. It’s usually translated like this:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift,
Professor of Holy Theology,
Dean of this cathedral church,
where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no longer.
Go, traveller, and, if you can,
imitate one who with his utmost strength protected liberty.
He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October,
A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.
But Yeats (WB) offered this translation, which is okay too:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea . . .
Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.
Comes into us at midnight very clean.
It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands.
It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.
Goddamn you all: I told you so.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
Against you I will fling myself
unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
Wren, Sir Christopher
LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE
(Reader, if you seek his monument look around.)
Yeats, William Butler
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by.