Gravely Speaking – The Philosophy of Gravestone Epitaphs

While visiting departed loved ones in the local cemetery recently I was taken by the epitaphs and epithets on memorial headstones describing or alluding respectively to the deceased’s personality, lifestyle or departure. There is a philosophy in the words and phrases we use to farewell and memorialise our dearly departed loved ones which tells us not so much about them but a lot about how us and how we choose to describe them. It may also become a symbol or reminder of our mortality or indeed immortality.

These days you read of wishes for the departed being ‘forever in our hearts’, ‘always remembered’ or ‘gone but not forgotten’ establishing a bond between the living and the dead. ‘Rest in peace’ always makes me think the departed had a restless life and needs peace and quiet in the hereafter. While some epitaphs are sentimental, I came across one dedicated to ‘Bubbles at Midnight’ featuring a raised glass and popped champagne bottle commemorating the vivacious and lively personality for a woman who died too soon but obviously enjoyed life to the fullest as suggested by her epitaph. Raise a glass toast and her memory.

Indeed memorials to the departed these days are very prosaic being conventional and straightforward. The fact that a loved one has died is a sad occasion and they are sure be missed but it is how they lived their life that should be commemorated and memorialised with an epitaph celebrating the essence of who they were together with any quirky nicknames or habits. For example a memorial to a gardener might suggest he or she is ‘living on in all things green and gardens everywhere’. ‘Peace, perfect peace’ makes me want to sigh ‘Aah’ in satisfaction and anticipation of a well deserved rest. A woman described in her epitaph as a ‘blythe spirit’ must have bounded through a happy and carefree life touching all her loved and knew her with her outgoing personality and joy of life.

These epitaphs provide an insight into the persons who died by associating them with their profession as a gardener, a happy, carefree personality with a disposition to match or a mother lovingly described by her family has having ‘grace and dignity’. Indeed these epitaphs indicate the level of high esteem these people were held in and the emotion contained in a few words more than adequately describes their lives and their influence on others around them.

Perhaps the most poignant epitaph of all is contained in one word only: ‘Remembered’. This simple word conveys our ability to bring to mind an awareness of someone from the past. It is something we can do anytime, anywhere to recall the particular quirks and humanity that made them who they were and why we loved them now and always. There is an old Jewish tradition that when you utter a dead person’s name you are perpetuating their memory, bringing it to life so they are ‘always remembered, never forgotten’.

The act of remembering is personal and unique to each one of us so it is important to consider an inscription will last a long time. The simplest headstone epitaphs therefore are the most profound: sweet are the memories that never fade.