Last Words

Nicholas Swingler, poet in residence at Kensal Green cemetery, celebrates the craft of epitaph-writing

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

W.B.Yeats (1865-1939)

The last three lines of Yeats's poem 'Under Ben Bulben' are also the inscription on his tombstone.

epitaph 1. a commemorative inscription on a tombstone or monument. 2. a speech or written passage composed in commemoration of a dead person. 3. a final judgment on a person or thing. (Collins English Dictionary)

Many poets have penned their own epitaphs. Indeed, there is such variety here that it might be productive to mine what the playwright Sheridan (died 1816) called the "derangement of epitaphs" – poetry and prose on and off the gravestone – as a treasury for poetic practice. Why not try to imitate, bend and subvert the models?

You could try being as summary as Alexis Piron (d. 1773):

Here lies Piron, a complete nullibiety,
Not even a Fellow of a Learned Society.

Translated back into its original French, this two-liner reads:

Ci-gît Piron qui ne fut rien,
Pas même académicien.

John Gay (d.1732) wrote a self-epitaph with arguably even less content, but equally memorable:

Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once; but now I know it.

Perhaps you'd prefer, say, six lines to work with, and to inject a few particulars? Malcolm Lowry (d. 1957) wrote his epitaph in a tradition of eighteenth-century self-deprecation:

Malcom Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily,
And died playing the ukulele.1

Byron (d.1824), on the other hand, avoided all biography and wallowed in the ironies of railing against the epitaph while simultaneously writing one. These lines are from 'A Fragment', itself from Hours of Idleness:

Oh may my shade behold no sculptured urns
To mark the spot where earth to earth returns!
No lengthen'd scroll, no praise- encumbered stone;
My epitaph shall be my name alone.

Tomb inscriptions can be excellent starting-points, especially if they are as OTT as the one commemorating Andrew Ducrow (d.1842), a circus performer buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. It includes these lines:

Within this tomb erected by Genius
for the reception of its own remains

How about using your poetic licence to chronicle your genius in, say, 14 lines, remembering that, for this deranged epitaph, you're not on oath.

Alexander Pope (d. 1744) – archest of critics, grandmaster of the rhyming couplet – actually wrote instructions to his executors in verse. These lines are engraved on his memorial at St Mary's Church, Twickenham:

For one who would not be buried in Westminster Abbey.

Heroes and Kings! your distance keep:
In peace let one poor Poet sleep;
Who never flatter'd folks like you:
Let Horace blush and Virgil too.

Pope, incidentally, was also a consummate epitaphist on others. One of my favourites is his epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton:

Nature, and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the least egotistical self-epitaph I know, Bertolt Brecht
(d. 1956) universalises the relationship between "instructor" and "executor", the dead and the living. These are the seven lines of his 'I need no gravestone':

I need no gravestone, but
If you need one for me
I would like it to bear these words:
He made suggestions. We
Carried them out.
Such an inscription would
Honour us all.2

It is tempting to steal that first line and use it to create a sequel.

Of course, poets don't have to write a self-epitaph poem as such to be commemorated with perfect justice as a poet. As Pope is, so is Thomas Gray (d. 1771); that is, they're both honoured by their own lines knocked into the masonry. Gray – buried in St Giles's Churchyard in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire – is remembered by words from his most famous work, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard':

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

T.S. Eliot (d. 1965) also receives his own lines as his inscribed epitaph, though in this case on a wall plaque (Eliot was cremated).

in my beginning is my end

reads the top of the plaque;

in my end is my beginning

reads the bottom. The lines from 'East Coker' did rather suggest themselves.

A few last words (if I may be permitted the phrase). The besetting sin of many epitaphs, in their various guises, is that praise for the deceased is such as to strain recognition. This is especially a problem, I think, with today's funeral tributes, significantly often called "eulogies". Co-operative Funeralcare supplies a guide, Well Chosen Words (with a foreword by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion), where the subtitle is "How to write a eulogy".

To counter the eulogistic tendency, I would use as a mantra what Marcus Antonius says in Julius Caesar (by William Shakespeare, d.1616): "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
And I would meditate on the wonderful 'Everyman-epitaph' in A Christmas Sermon by Robert Louis Stevenson (d.1894):

Here lies one who meant well, tried a little,
failed much: – surely that may be his epitaph,
of which he need not be ashamed.

1. Malcolm Lowry's epitaph is reprinted from Selected Poems (City Lights Books, 1962)
2. 'I need no gravestone' is reprinted from Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956. Translation by Michael Hamburger, (Methuen, 1976). is a useful resource for epitaph-hunters.

Nicholas Swingler is poet in residence with the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery (, and the author of Dream of the Condom and other poems.