Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks

Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter! 

During the 18th century, the epitaph was a malleable genre that performed several functions: it appeared on actual gravestones, but was also used in satirical verses by writers such as Alexander Pope. The epitaph was so popular, and so free-form, that writers began to compose guidebooks on how to compose the perfect epitaph (these guides resemble the epistolary guidebooks that inspired Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). One such guide is Samuel Johnson’s essay on “Pope’s Epitaphs,” reprinted in his Life of Pope. A more compendious volume, capturing the free-form nature of the epitaph, is John Bowden’s guidebook on the form, The Epitaph-Writer (1791). In this text, Bowden uses didactic epitaphs as models:

Those who to rhime are quite averse,

Need not a Rhime to use;

Blank-verse may their good Deeds rehearse

Or bad ones—if they choose.

If Prose to either they prefer,

In Prose be they express’d;

But, for a worthless Character,

Some think—blank Stone is best. (xx-xxi)

In keeping with the looseness of its formal conception during this period, the epitaph could serve many potential thematic functions: in addition to its usual purpose of praising the memory of a dead person, it could be didactic, a memento mori to warn a passing traveller, or a “Specimen of Satirical Wit” like the following “ingenious” example by “The late Dr. Byrom of Manchester”:

Here lies John Hill,

A Man of Skill,

His Age was five Times ten;

He ne’er did Good,

Nor ever wou’d,

If he’d liv’d as long again. (x)

As John Hill’s less than praiseworthy character attests, by the end of the century, epitaph-writing guides insisted on a “strict regard to Truth in the Description and Praise of Characters” for sepulchral epitaphs (Bowden xii). Epitaph-writers experienced tension between reporting the details of someone’s character accurately, and commemorating him or her for the benefit of grieving relatives. Pope, for instance, complained about a constant demand for “random Praise”: “Each Mother asks it for her Booby Son.”  The satirical epitaph presented a potential solution to this dilemma: it functioned similarly to the later postmortem report, in that it allowed the writer to diagnose the moral failings of the subject under examination: “One Thing, however, the Writer of humorous and satirical Epitaphs is never to forget, viz. that he is to attack and expose, not personal, but mental Deformity, not virtuous, but vicious Characters” (Bowden x).

But the satirist’s sense of decorum was also important; Bowden writes, “Want of Decency is Want of Sense” (x). Poetic epitaphs dedicated solely to describing the mode of death could often be quite silly and tasteless. See this 19th-century example, where the manner of death and the nomenclature of the deceased clash with the rules of rhyme:

Here lies JOHN BUNN

Who was killed by a gun.

His name wasn’t Bunn, but his real name was WOOD

But Wood wouldn’t rhyme with gun, so I thought Bunn Should [1]

The problem of the epitaph’s decorum vs. its exposure of truth,  which Pope, Johnson, and Bowden discussed, laid the groundwork for the re-emergence of this problem at the beginning of the next century in Wordsworth’s Essays on Epitaphs  (1811) — the last, and greatest, meditations on a creatively declining genre.

For more on 18th-century and Romantic epitaphs, see The Gravestone Project!

[1] Qtd. in Paul Vita, unpublished dissertation (Columbia University), p. 80.