HISTORY Blog

Tombstone Tales: History’s Most Famous Epitaphs

By Barbara Maranzani

ed-kochFormer New York City mayor Edward I. Koch, who died last week at the age of 88, was buried today at Trinity Cemetery in northern Manhattan. In the years leading up to his death, Koch talked openly about his funeral plans, going so far as to give tours of his burial plot to journalists and informing them that he had chosen its location, in part, for its close proximity to public transportation—making it easier for his admirers to come pay their respects. Always good for a memorable quote, Koch also revealed what words he had chosen for his tombstone. In a nod to his Jewish roots, he selected both a Hebrew prayer, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” and the final words of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, spoken just before his murder by Islamic militants in 2002, “ My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Koch composed his own final epitaph for the base of his tombstone, stating how he wished to be remembered:

He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people.
Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.

This got us thinking about how other historical figures have been posthumously remembered. Here’s a look at some of the stories we unearthed from beyond the grave.

Winston Churchill
The British statesman and prime minister’s biting wit and sharp tongue were well known throughout his lifetime and the caustic Churchill frequently clashed with other politicians and even fellow aristocrats. In one memorable exchange, Nancy Astor, the American-born debutante who married into Britain’s upper class and later became the first female member of Parliament, rebuked Churchill for his behavior, stating: “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison.” Not to be outdone, Churchill chirped right back, responding, “If I were your husband I would take it.” When Churchill died in January 1965, he conceded that he might not be so easy to get along with it—especially for all eternity:

I am ready to meet my Maker.
Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.

Spike Milligan
Another famed British wit, comedian and writer Spike Milligan, left behind an admonition for friends and family on his tombstone. Milligan, who rocketed to fame with the influential comedy program “The Goon Show,” suffered from bi-polar disorder for much of his life before finally succumbing to kidney failure in 2002. Along with the usual commemoration of dates of birth and death, Mulligan opted to chide those who had doubted his precarious health. There was one problem: The East Sussex cemetery he had selected for his final resting place refused to comply, considering his request offensive. Mulligan’s family eventually agreed to include a Gaelic translation of Mulligan’s parting words, which now appear at the base of the tombstone:

I told you I was ill.

Dorothy Parker
While we’re on the subject of witty writers, let’s discuss the 20-year post-mortem saga of Mrs. Parker. Upon her death in 1967, Parker, a lifelong advocate for racial equality, left her estate to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.—despite the fact that the two had never met. In the case of King’s death, her will stipulated that the estate go to the NAACP, which is exactly what happened the following year. While Parker made careful provisions for her literary legacy, she failed to do the same for her physical one. Parker chose as her executor fellow author Lillian Hellman, who failed terrifically in her role as posthumous caretaker. Not only did Hellman hold a public funeral—against Parker’s express wishes— she also refused to collect Parker’s ashes following her cremation. Hellman then proceeded to spend more than a decade unsuccessfully suing the NAACP for control of Parker’s valuable estate. All the while, poor Dorothy’s remains remained in storage. Finally, in 1988, the NAACP claimed the ashes and finally put Parker to rest—not in her beloved New York City—but at their Baltimore, Maryland, headquarters. The memorial plaque pays tribute to Parker’s social advocacy, but also includes the appropriately pithy epitaph she chose for herself:

Excuse my dust.

thomas-jeffersonThomas Jefferson
Of course, one of the most famous examples of the self-penned epitaph comes from one of America’s best-loved founding fathers. Always a perfectionist, Jefferson decided exactly what should be included on his tombstone at Monticello. A proud Virginian to the end, Jefferson chose to highlight the work he had done on behalf of the Old Dominion, omitting a rather important part of Jefferson’s resume—his tenure as America’s third president:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson,
author of the Declaration of American Independence,
of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom,
and father of the University of Virginia.

Benjamin Franklin
Sometimes a planned epitaph can fall by the wayside. As a young man, Franklin confided to his diary what he wanted written on his tombstone. Weaving together his work as one of the colonies’ premier publishers with his lifelong goal of constant self-improvement, he chose:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.

That’s not quite how it worked out, though. Franklin, never one to shy away from self-promotion, was surprisingly modest when he made his final wishes known—his grave in Philadelphia’s Christ Church cemetery simply reads, “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin.”

Ludolph van Ceulen
Others haven’t been so self-effacing. Dutch mathematician van Ceulen was happy to brag about his greatest achievement—one of the most comprehensive calculations of the numerical value of Pi, or π. After he died in 1610, he had the 35 characters he had discovered included on his tombstone:

3.14159265358979323846264338327950288…

The Outlaws
Sometimes family members decide to overlook the negative aspects of a person’s life. For example, when Jesse James was murdered by supposed friend and fellow gang member Robert Ford in April 1882, his bereaved mother chose to commemorate her son with these words:

Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.

Famed (and doomed) outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow lived, robbed and died together, but despite their wishes were buried in separate Dallas, Texas cemeteries. Bonnie’s grave reflects how she wished to be remembered.

As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you.
Outlaw, bank robber and partner of Clyde Barrow

Clyde’s however, makes no mention of Bonnie at all:

Gone but not forgotten.

Shakespeare and Keats
Leave it the literary lions to come up with some of the most potent funereal prose. For a man whose works are full of curses, ghosts, murderers and otherworldly figures, it’s perhaps not surprising that William Shakespeare hoped to ensure an undisturbed sleep in the afterlife with these words of warning:

Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

More than 300 years later John Keats did not go quietly into the night, but instead offered up this attack against his perceived enemies.

This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet
Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies
Desired these words to be engraved on his Tomb Stone
“Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

The Entertainers
Many entertainers wind up cribbing lines from their most popular works. That’s what Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin did for their respective curtain calls; “The best is yet to come” and “Everybody loves somebody sometime.” Others choose a more sentimental farewell, like the husband-and-wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. When Gracie died in 1964, George continued on his own until his own death in 1998—at which point their joint crypt was marked with two simple words, “Together Again.”

Few can top Mel Blanc, though. The legendary Blanc was the voice of dozens of Warner Brothers cartoon characters, and chose for his epitaph one of Porky Pig’s signature lines:

That’s All  Folks.

Categories: Burials