How to write an epitaph

Guest post by Michael Wolfe

wolfeWe were honored this spring when Michael Wolfe’s wonderful book, Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, made the long list of nominees for the 2014 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. We were thrilled in June when the book landed on the short list of five nominees.  To celebrate this good news (and pass the time while we await the announcement of the award recipient on July 30), Michael and the JHU Press are hosting an  “Epitaph Writing Contest” on Goodreads.  For the next several weeks, intrepid memorializers may submit their epitaphs on Michaels Goodreads page. Michael will select his favorite epitaph of the week, and the JHU Press will be pleased to send the weeks winner a copy of Cut These Words into My Stone. Later in August, the JHU Press Blog will publish the winning epitaphs with appreciative comments from Michael. Below are his indispensable tips for writing a timeless (and award-winning) epitaph. So, get writing (and remembering)!


Four Tips for Writing an Epitaph:

Epitaphs are among the oldest examples of writing in the world, and the form remains popular today. As long as we honor our dead, epitaphs will always be an important way to celebrate their lives. When writing your epitaph, keep in mind that:

1)    Epitaphs are short and concise.

2)    They convey a strong feeling.

3)    Often, someone is speaking in the first person (a relative, a friend; the deceased.)

4)    The writer should think about who is being addressed (for example, a passerby.)

Some Thoughts about These Tips:

Short, concise, and pithy” – Many epitaphs are just one or two lines long. Even those with four or six lines are still short. This limitation can be beneficial. It gives you a chance to sum up a person’s life in just a few words, to give it shape and express real emotion. An epitaph often contains the name of the deceased. Sometimes it includes their hometown and perhaps a reference to their age (old or young):

                          After many good times with friends his age,

                          Riding horses and playing ball,

                         Here he is, back in the earth he sprang from,

                         Twenty years old, his parents’ pride, Wayne Henry.

Some epitaphs also mention a person the deceased has left behind . . . a relative or friend:

                        Jean’s friends will mourn her, her husband too

                        And three small children, but no one knew

                        Her from start to sudden stop, the way her father

                        Knew her and her mother.

The feeling” An epitaph may be celebratory or tragic. It is usually heartfelt:              

                           Billy fought three tours in Iraq.

                           When he signed up for more, we begged him not to.

                           Now he and his new friends are underground.

An epitaph may also be humorous:

                        Dr. Marcus was a terrible physician.

                        His final patient was a marble statue.

                        He wrapped its broken arm in gauze

                        And prescribed two aspirin just before he died.

                        This morning they couldn’t find a pulse.

                        Now we are carting the statue to the graveyard.

Or it may be ironic:

                        Phillip was an actor all his life.

                        He won awards in comedy and drama.

                        On stage he died a thousand times,

                        But never quite like this.

The best epitaphs are not overly sentimental or unbearably sad. An epitaph is a chance to sum up a life and express deep feelings. An epitaph is a genuine expression.

Who is speaking the epitaph?  Most good epitaphs have a voice. The epitaph may be spoken by a loved one or a friend, a parent, an employer, a neighbor, a fellow soldier, maybe the owner of a horse or dog or other pet, etc.:

                        Maria’s parents put up this stone,

                        Weeping with every letter as we wrote it.

Or it may be the voice of the deceased:

                        After drinking a lot, eating a lot,

                        And speaking badly of everyone,

                        Here I lie where I was born,

                        Alfred Stearn, in a Mississippi bayou.

Who does the epitaph address?”  Some epitaphs make a general statement to the world:

                        Here lies Thales of Miletus. He invented astronomy.

                        His name will be written in the stars.


                        Here lies the poet Robert Frost.

                        He had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Some epitaphs address a passerby:

                        Stranger, if you pass this grave don’t smirk

                        Because it only holds a dog . . .

Some epitaphs speak directly to a loved one:

                        You were my wife. If now and then,

                        You find yourself with time to kill

                        From raising our children and entertaining friends,

                        Come visit me some afternoon, and stay an hour

                        So we can talk. And if you want, bring flowers.

Good luck in the Epitaph Writing Contest!


wolfe comp.inddMichael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. Wolfe is the author of many books of verse and prose, including Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, now available from JHU Press.