Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal; Epitaphs, Saturday, September 17, 1836, pp.266-267.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


To distinguish the last resting-place of a great man, or of a friend, by a monument and an epitaph, is the result of a natural, and, upon the whole, amiable disposition in man. It is a practice of great antiquity in almost all nations, and one which may be expected to perish only with human nature itself. Epitaphs, though placed over the dead, and often proceeding as from them, being in reality the composition of the living, have never been any thing else than an expression of the feelings of living men. Coming from living minds, and addressed to livings minds, they present humanity in all its phases – its inferior passions, and its highest aspirations, its vanity, its tender affections, and even, strange to say, its mirth. Not one word of the secret, which, if the dead could really speak, they could scarcely fail to tell. Not one returned letter from that distant colony to which we are daily sending so many settlers, and in which the whole population of the home country is ultimately to merge. 

   the original purpose of epitaphs appears to have been commemoration. The survivors wished to point out to posterity, or to all who felt an interest in the matter, the whereabouts of the deceased. In the days of classical antiquity, it gradually became customary to add some allusion to death, then considered as an eternal sleep, and to admonish the living, in the spirit of the existing philosophy, to make the best use of the years which remained to them – that is to say, to enjoy them as much as possible. To keep life free from the taste of death, men did not then dwell upon the more painful associations of mortality – skulls and cross-bones, and the corruption of charnel-houses. The emblems which they placed upon their monuments were such as the most fastidious taste would delight to regard – Love drooping over an inverted torch, the flame of which was extinguishing itself, a butterfly presented to the gods, or a rose sculptured on a sarcophagus. That the earth might lie light upon the deceased, was the usual expression of the tenderness of the surviving. In the middle ages, Christian feelings naturally found their way into sepulchral inscriptions; the intervention of Jesus and of Mary, and the prayers of the passing stranger, were beseeched in behalf of the deceased. “Orate pro anima, miserimi peccatoris (pray for me, a most miserable sinner) was an address,” remarks Dr Johnson, “to the last degree striking and solemn, as it flowed naturally from the religion then believed, and awakened in the reader sentiments of benevolence for the deceased, and of concern for his own happiness.” After the Reformation in our own country, and especially during the seventeenth century, religious admonition became a more conspicuous purpose in epitaphs, and has ever since continued to be so in a greater or less degree. 

   There is a kind of epitaph in which laconicism is studied as the best mode of panegyric. Of this sort, antiquity presents many specimens, as “Cæsar Illyricus;” simple phrases, containing the names of the countries in which the heroes had won their chief laurels, and therefore supposed to tell all that was required. In such cases, it was necessary to observe some caution, lest, the fame of the person being perishable, the epitaph should ere long become an unmeaning tale, or a subject of ridicule. there was an individual named Picus Mirandola, whose friends thought so highly of him, as to content themselves with stating his name, and mentioning that the rest was known to the Tagus and the Ganges, perhaps even to the Antipodes; whereas he is not now known any where, for any thing but his epitaph. “Exit Burbage,” the epitaph of the earliest English tragedian of note, can scarcely be considered of this kind, being too much of a conceit. But no one can dispute the emphatic and deserved tenderness of “O rare Ben Jonson,” which appears on a small stone in the pavement of Westminster Abbey. If the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, in St Paul’s, had been confined to “Si monumentum quæreris, circumspice” (if you seek his monument, look around on this building), it might have been reckoned in this class; but, unfortunately, it is only the last line of a long dull inscription. An epitaph suggested by Johnson, “Isaacus Newtonus, naturæ legibus investigatis, hic quiescit,” (Sir Isaac Newton, the laws of nature having been investigated, reposes here), woujld have been a happy example of laconic sublimity. There is a minor department of concise epitaphs which depend for their effect upon the expression of an elevating passion. Melrose Abbey presents a fine specimen in “HEIR LYES YE RACE OF YE HOUS OF YAIR” – the reliance upon birth and local celebrity being here seen to have deemed every thing else unnecessary. A like noble sentiment we may perceive in the wish of Lord Brook, that his epitaph should simply describe him as having been “servant to Queen Elizabeth, counsellor to King James [VI.], and the friend of Sir Philip Sydney.” 

   In some epitaphs, the ruling object has been to convey a pithy idea, or some piece of proverbial or emphatic wisdom. Of this class are two Greek epitaphs, the subjects of which were slaves, but of a very extraordinary character. “Zosima, who in her life could only have her body enslaved, now finds her body likewise set at liberty.” “It is impossible,” says Johnson, “to read this epitaph without being animated to bear the evils of life with constancy, and to support the dignity of human nature under the most pressing afflictions, both by the example of the heroine whose grave we behold, and the prospect of that state in which, to use the language of the inspired writers, ‘The wicked cease from troubling, and the weary be at rest.’ ” The other is upon Epictectus, the Stoic philosopher – “Epictetus, who lies here, was a slave and a cripple, poor as the beggar in the proverb, but the favourite of heaven.” “In this inscription,” remarks the same writer, “is comprised the noblest panegyric, and the most important instruction. We may learn from it that virtue is impracticable in no condition, since Epictetus could recommend himself to the regard of heaven amidst the temptations of poverty and slavery. And we may likewise be admonished by it, not to lay any stress on a man’s outward circumstances, in making an estimate of his real value, since Epictetus, the beggar, the cripple, and the salve, was the favourite of heaven.” 

   Mr Charles Lamb, in one of his essays, condemns the whole order of admonitory epitaphs. he cannot endure, he says, to be taken by the beard by every dead man, who, perhaps, in life, was no better than himself. Lamb forgets that the admonition does not come from the dead, but is only a living breath that has passed over mortality, and endeavoured to catch its spirit. The presence of the dead can never but afford a proper occasion for impressing moral and religious truth, for weaning the thoughts from the present world, and directing them to a better. If sermons are to be found in any stones, they will surely be found in grave-stones, which tell of human life cut short at every period, of all orders of men obeying the call to depart, and of every kind of sorrow endured in consequence of the relentless exercise of the power of death. It is true that many of the homilies thus preached are rude in manner, and most trite and commonplace in sentiment. Yet such are not all. What, for instance, could be more striking than the following old quaint lines in St Martin’s churchyard, Stamford? 

Earth walks upon earth, glitt’ring like gold, 

Earth goes to earth sooner than it would; 

Earth builds upon earth, castles and towers; 

Says the earth to the earth “all shall be ours.” 

Or the following:- 

Look, man, before thee, how thy death hasteth, 

Look, man, behind thee, how thy life wasteth; 

Look on thy right side, how death thee desireth, 

Look on thy left side, how sin thee beguileth; 

Look, man, above thee, joys that ever shall last, 

Look, man, beneath thee, the pains without rest. 

Or the following more elegant verses, from the grave of Alderman Humble, in St Saviour’s, Southwark, who died in 1616:-  

Like to the damask rose you see, 

Or like the blossom on the tree, 

Or like the dainty flower of May, 

Or like the morning of the day, 

Or like the sun, or like the shade, 

Or like the gourd which Jonas had. 

Even so is man, whose thread is spun, 

Drawn out and cut, and so is done: 

The rose withers, the blossom blasteth, 

The flower fades, the morning hasteth, 

The gourd consumes, and man he dies. 

In a monument, of date 1459, in Hungerford chapel, the young and gay are called upon to remember their end in the following lines, inscribed above the figure of a skeleton:- 

Grastless galant, in all thy lustre and pryde, 

Remember that thou shalt gyve due. 

Death should fro thy body thy soule deuyde, 

Thou mayst not him escape certaynly. 

To the dede bodies cast down thyne eye, 

Behold thaym well, considre, and see; 

For such as they ar, such shalt yow be. 

The indiscrimination of death in choosing out the happy, and leaving the wretched, is thus beautifully adverted to on the same monument:- 

Alasse, death, alasse! a blessful thing you were, 

Yf thou wouldyst spare us in our lustynesse, 

And cum to wretches that be soe of hevy chere, 

When they ye clepe1 to slake there distresse; 

But owte, alasse, thyne own sely selfwyldnesse 

Crewelly werneth the pyt, seygh, wayle, and wepe, 

To close there yen that after ye doth clepe. 

The admonitory are, as might be expected, a numerous class; but it may be sufficient to add one which is inscribed over the grave of John Alleyne, B.D., rector of Loughborough, who died in 1739, and of his wife and son. The elegance of this epitaph places it among the first compositions of the kind in existence:- 

Vain to the dead are tears, and vain is praise, 

And vain each fond memorial we can raise: 

So on the pyre Arabia’s incense is thrown, 

Glads with its sweets the living sense alone. 

The friends we mourn with sacred love were fraught, 

And truths divine with Christian zeal they taught. 

Still may they teach, still from the grave impart, 

Such truths as melt the eye, and mend the heart. 

Oh! from the tomb may holy musings rise, 

And life’s poor trifles, as they read, grow wise; 

For friendship poureth not the plaintive strain, 

Nor builds the hallowed monuments in vain, 

If the sad marble bids the living pause, 

And vice one moment to reflection draws. 

The epitaphs traced by sorrowing affection are also numerous. On children there are some of exquisite beauty, as the following, upon the monument of Frances Soame, aged five months, in Thurloe churchyard, Suffolk:- 

The cup of life just with her lips she prest, 

Found the taste bitter, and declined the rest; 

Averse then turning from the face of day, 

She softly sighed her little soul away. 

And the following:- 

Here she lies, a pretty bud, 

Lately made of flesh and blood; 

Who as soon fell fast asleep 

As her little eyes did peep. 

Give her strewings, but not stir 

The earth that lightly covers her. 

The two following are quaint, but gentle, as becomes the subject, and very beautiful:- 

The railing world, turned poet, made a play, 

I came to see it, disliked, and went away, 

As careful nurses to their beds do lay 

Their children, which too long would wanton play; 

So, to prevent all my ensuing crimes, 

Nature, my nurse, laid me to bed betimes. 

The grief for the infantine is seldom of a deep character. To part with those who have scarcely yet acquired, as it were, a title to life, is comparatively easy. But as the young advance in years, and become more and more a part of ourselves, their loss ceases to be a gentle grief, and amounts to an affliction – an affliction for which there can be no consolation but the hope of speedily rejoining the departed on the further shores of time. All this is touchingly expressed in an epitaph from a country churchyard in Ireland:- 

A little spirit slumbers here, 

Who to one heart was ever dear. 

Oh! he was more than life or light, 

Its thought by day – its dream by night; 

The chill-winds came; the young flower faded 

And died: the grave its sweetness shaded. 

Fair Boy! thou should’st have wept for me, 

Not I have had to mourn o’er thee; 

Yet not long shall this sorrowing be. – 

Those roses I have planted round, 

To deck thy dear sad sacred ground, 

When spring gales next those roses wave, 

They’ll blush upon thy mother’s grave. 

Which, however, in point of tenderness and elevated moral feeling, cannot be compared with another, in which the mourner was of the opposite sex, and which is also from a country churchyard:- 

A tie to earth with thee, dear youth, is gone: 

A tie to heaven with thee, dear youth, is flown. 

Oh! as a father lifts his streaming eyes, 

And views thy home, the bright empyreal skies, 

May fond reflection on his William’s bliss, 

Allure to brighter worlds, and wean from this. 

To reach thy raptures be it all his care, 

And all this pride to suffer and to bear. 

A sepulchral inscription written by Ben Jonson for a young theatrical prodigy, and chorister in Queen Elizabeth’s chapel, has much feeling:- 

Weep with me all you that read 

This little story; 

And know for whom a tear you shed – 

Death’s self is sorry. 

‘Twas a child that did so thrive 

In age and feature, 

As Heaven and Nature seemed to strive, 

Which owned the creature. 

Years he numbered scarce thirteen, 

When Fates turned cruel, 

Yet three full zodiacs had he been 

The satge’s jewel. 

And did act what now we moane, 

Old men so duely, 

As sooth the Parcæ thought him one, 

He plaid so truely. 

So by error, to his fate, 

They all consented 

But, viewing him since, alas too late, 

They have repented; 

And have sought to give new birth 

In baths to steep him; 

But being so much too good for earth, 

Heaven vows to keep him. 

The grave of youth becomes peculiarly interesting when it also entombs feminine beauty; and this has been deeply felt by the poets. Jonson has bit off the subject in four singularly expressive, but by no means affecting lines, which are well known:- 

Underneath this stone doth lie, 

As much beauty as could die; 

Which, when alive, did vigour give 

To as much beauty as could live. 

It has also been touched in half the space in Harrow churchyard, but with an equal defect of pathos:- 

Sleep on, thou fair, and wait th’ Almighty will, 

Then rise unchanged, and be an angel still. 

Much more justice is done to the occasion in an epitaph on a lady of twenty-two, who died in 1795, and whose monument is in Downton churchyard, Shorpshire:- 

Here mouldering in the cold embrace of death, 

What once was elegance and beauty lies; 

Mute is the music of her tuneful breath, 

And quenched the radiance of her sparkling eyes. 


A prey to lingering malady she fell, 

Ere yet her form had lost its vernal bloom; 

Her virtues, Misery, oft-relieved, may tell; 

The rest let silent Charity entomb; 


Nor suffer busy unrelenting zeal, 

E’en here, her gentle frailties to pursue, 

Let Envy turn from what it cannot feel, 

And Malice reverence what it never knew. 


But should the justice of the good and wise 

Condemn her faults, with judgment too severe, 

Let mild-eyed Pity from the heart arise, 

And blot the rigid sentence with a tear. 

We have seen an inscription for twin sisters, which has much of the same merit:- 

Fair marble, tell to future days, 

That here two virgin sisters lie, 

Whose life employed each tongue in praise, 

Whose death gave tears to ev’ry eye; 

In stature, beauty, years, and fame, 

Together as they grew they shone, 

So much alike, so much the same, 

That death mistook them both for one. 

In the churchyard of Peebles, there was formerly to be read the following beautiful little monody on the death of Helen Muir, a young lady of great beauty, who died at the age of fifteen, about the end of the seventeenth century. 

Beneath this stone in ground the seed is sown, 

Of such a flower, though fallen ere fully grown. 

As will, when that the saints first spring on high, 

Be sweet and pure as the celestial sky; 

Whose looks persuaded more than others’ speech, 

And more by words than deeds she loved to teach; 

Hence young she from the sinful living fled, 

For safety here among the sinless dead. 

Of another young lady, her panegyrist says that her beauty, dignity, and sweetness, were “exotic, of heavenly extraction, and could not live long here.” 

   Not less tenderness has been displayed by husbands in commemorating their partners, as witness the inimitable sonnet of Mason.2 

Take, holy earth, all that my soul holds dear, 

Take that best gift which heaven so lately gave; 

To Bristol’s fount I bore with trembling care 

her faded form; she bowed to taste the wave, 

And died: does youth, does beauty read the line? 

Does sympathetic fear their breast alarm? 

Speak, dead Maria, breathe a strain divine; 

E’en from the grave thou shalt have power to charm. 

Bid them be chaste, be innocent like thee; 

Bid them in duty’s sphere as meekly move; 

And if so fair from vanity as free, 

As firm in friendship and as fond in love; 

Tell, though it is an awful thing to die, 

(‘Twas e’en to thee), yet, the dread path once trod, 

Heaven lifts to everlasting portals high, 

And bids the pure in heart behold their God. 

And the scarcely less elegant lines of another man of genius, Dr Hawkesworth, whose wife died about the same time at the same place: 

Whoe’er, like me, with boding anguish brings 

His heart’ss whole treasure to fair Bristol’s springs; 

Whoe’er, like me, to soothe disease and pain, 

Shall pour these salutary streams in vain; 

Condemned, like me, to hear the faint reply, 

To mark the flushing cheek, the sinking eye, 

From the chill brow to wipe the damp of death, 

And watch with dumb despair each shortening breath; 

If chance direct him to this artless line, 

Let the sad mourner know his pangs were mine. 

Ordained to lose the partner of my breast, 

Whose beauty warmed me, and whose virtue blessed; 

Formed every tie that binds the soul to prove, 

Her duty friendship, and that friendship love. 

But yet, remembering that the parting sigh 

Ordained the just to slumber – not to die; 

The falling tear I checked, I kissed the rod, 

And not to earth resigned her – but to God. 

The monument erected by Lord Lyttleton in Hagley church, over the remains of his wife Lucy, whose death he deplored with such celebrated grief, consists of an urn of white marble, on the front of which is carved in relief a female face in profile, and the word “Lucia;” while upon the pedestal Hymen rests with his torch extinct, and his eyes suffused in tears;- enough to tell the tale in all time coming to all who are conversant with English literature. In the church of the Temple, there is an epitaph by a gentleman of the same name upon his wife, who died in 1623, and which breathes the warmest spirit of admiration for the virtues of the deceased – ending with a conceit which appears new in funereal literature – 

Keep well this pawn, thou marble chest; 

Till it be called for, let it rest; 

For while this jewel here is set, 

The grave is but a cabinet. 

We shall conclude for the present with an epitaph on a happy pair, which affords an excellent hint for the conduct of married persons:- 

They were so one, that none could say 

Which of them ruled, or whether did obey. 

He ruled, because she would obey; and she, 

In so obeying, ruled as well as he. 

1  Call. 

2  Mary, the wife of the Rev. W. Mason, died March 27, 1767, aged 28, and is interred in Bristol cathedral. 

One thought on “Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal; Epitaphs, Saturday, September 17, 1836, pp.266-267.

Leave a Reply