If you’re planning a funeral for a loved one, and they’ve chosen to have a burial with a gravestone, you’ll need to write an epitaph. What’s more commonly known as a short inscription on a tombstone, an epitaph is likely to be some of the most difficult sentences you’ll ever have to write.
To help you through the process, we’ve put together a quick step-by-step guide on how to write an epitaph, plus some famous epitaphs that might inspire what you write.
What is an epitaph?
An epitaph, also known as a gravestone inscription, is a short message written in memory of a person who has passed away. The message can serve many purposes and can be written as a poem or a brief description to help identify the deceased.
How to Write an Epitaph
A tombstone inscription has four main parts: the deceased’s name, the date they were born, the date they passed away and an epitaph (a message or quote) about the deceased. Here are five steps on how to write an epitaph.
1. Start by reflecting
Before you start writing the epitaph, give yourself time to reflect on the deceased’s values, personality, achievements and quotes they might have lived by. It’s hard to try and sum up someone’s life in just a few short words, so giving yourself time to reflect on all aspects of what made the deceased who they were will help narrow down your epitaph to a specific focus. For example, if they were a father and coach, you might write about their impact as a leader.
2. Share ideas with your family
After you’ve landed on a few areas that you want to focus on, don’t be afraid to share them with family and friends. Their perspective on what made the deceased unique might be different than yours, and gathering this information will help write an epitaph that resonates with everyone. Ask them to be specific about quotes and words they would use to describe the deceased and their philosophy on life.
3. Decide the perspective of the epitaph
Typically, an epitaph is from the perspective of a surviving loved one such as a child, parent or spouse. Other times, people might choose to write it from the deceased's perspective, such as a quote or lesson they imparted to their community. The other option is to write it in the third person, so it sounds like it’s being read to each person who reads it. If you’re unsure what to choose, try writing the message from all three to see what sounds the best.
4. Determine the length
There isn’t a rule to say how short or long an epitaph must be. They’re usually no more than a couple of lines. First, if you write a long epitaph, you’ll need a larger tombstone, which can become expensive. Some tombstone inscription services charge per letter, per line, or the time to engrave the epitaph. Others might include the entire inscription in the cost of the tombstone.
Read more on funeral costs in Australia.
5. Make sure it’s timeless
You might be tempted to use abbreviations, inside jokes, cliches or references to trends, but the epitaph you choose will be there for a long time. Therefore, make sure it’s timeless and speaks to immediate family, distant relatives, close friends and cemetery visitors.
Here are five famous epitaphs of celebrities:
1. “She did it the hard way.” - Bette Davis
Bette Davis joked that the line from the 1950 film ‘All About Eve’ would make an appropriate gravestone inscription for her one day. After she passed away in 1989, the famous quote was added to her tombstone in Los Angeles.
2. “The best is yet to come.” - Frank Sinatra
Inscribed on Frank Sinatra’s headstone is the title of his 1964 hit, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’. The song was the last song Frank sang in public before his death.
3. “That’s all, folks!” - Mel Blanc
Mel Blanc was the man behind the voices of some of the most well-known cartoons, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. So Blanc requested that his loved ones inscribe Porky Pig’s catchphrase at the end of every Looney Tunes episode on his gravestone.
4. “Jack Lemmon in” - Jack Lemmon
Well-known actor Jack Lemmon had only one word on his epitaph: in. The idea was that the inscription would read the same as the opening titles of a movie.
5. “True to your own spirit.” - Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison was the lead singer for the Doors. Years after Jim’s passing, his father decided to add a bronze plaque with an epitaph in Greek that translates to “True to your own spirit.”
What you choose to write for the epitaph will be around for hundreds of years, so it’s important to put extra time and consideration into this small description. However, you might be under some time constraints, so it's best to involve family and friends to help you find the perfect words to honour the deceased.
Know what you would want for your epitaph? Make it known by including it in your online Will.