They might be six feet under, but a good epitaph means they'll never be forgotten. Some of the wittiest and most famous people who lived here on Earth left an equally memorable message on their tombstones to remember them by when they died. Many offer inside jokes and punchy observations about life and death; some don't contain words at all. Some of these epitaphs are momentous and others are hilarious -- but all of them are near perfect representations of the persons buried beneath them.
From Frank Sinatra to Winston Churchill to Jesse James, here lie 20 of our favorite gravestone inscriptions.
One of Yeast's loved ones evidently took advantage of his unusual last name to bring us this memorable epitaph. The pun should get a rise out of anyone who visits Yeast's gravesite in a Ruidoso, N. M. cemetery. History hasn't recorded the date or cause of John Yeast's death, or even his profession. We can only hope that he was a baker.
The Gaelic epitaph for this Irish comedian translates to, "I told you I was ill." Milligan, who died of liver failure in 2002 at age 83, was famous for his irreverent humor showcased on TV and in films such as "Monty Python's Life of Brian." His gravestone, which lies at St Thomas Church in Winchelsea, East Sussex, stood bare for some time while his family argued over which phrase best would encapsulate the comedian's career. When they finally came to an agreement, the church insisted that the phrase be written in Gaelic. Though Milligan may have had the last laugh, non-Gaelic-speaking visitors won't get the joke.
In the Wild West, Jesse James was legendary -- a Robin Hood-like figure who the public loved and lawmakers hated. The outlaw's notorious bank robbing spree led to a $10,000 reward for his capture. Brothers Bob and Charley Ford, members of James' own gang, decided to cash in on that reward. On April 3, 1882, while an unarmed Jesse James stood on a chair in his home fixing a picture on the wall, Bob shot him in the back of the head. James was just 34 years old when he died. Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden pardoned the Ford brothers for their crime, but the public saw them as cowards. So did James' mother, Zerelda, who chose the inscription on his tombstone.
Math students will recognize the number on Dutch mathematician Ludolph van Ceulen's grave as pi -- the mathematical constant used to calculate the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Van Ceulen, who died from unknown causes in 1610 at age 70, was the first to calculate the value of pi to 35 digits. He was so proud of this achievement that he asked that the number be engraved on his tombstone. Since Van Ceulen's death, pi's value has multiplied exponentially. In 2002, a team of mathematicians at the University of Tokyo took pi to its longest calculation to date -- 1.2 billion numbers. Just try fitting that on their tombstones.
How fitting that the star of "Some Like It Hot," "The Odd Couple," and "Grumpy Old Men" would simultaneously make us laugh, and remind us of the film legacy he left behind with this memorable epitaph. Lemmon started life on his way down -- he was actually born in a descending elevator -- but he went straight up from there. He starred in dozens of movies during his 50-year career, receiving two Oscars and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work. Even after Lemmon died of bladder cancer in 2001 at age 76, he was surrounded by Hollywood's finest. Among his "neighbors" at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles are actress Natalie Wood, comedian Rodney Dangerfield, and "Some Like it Hot" writer Billy Wilder.
Curiosity certainly didn't kill Studs Terkel. In fact, it defined the career of this Pulitzer-prize winning author and radio host. Terkel, who was born Louis (he took his nickname from the fictional character Studs Lonigan), spent much of his life interviewing average Americans. Using a technique he called "guerilla journalism," he gathered hours and hours of conversations, weaving together a vibrant oral history of America. Terkel announced his own epitaph years before his 2008 death at age 96. In the postscript to his memoir, "Touch and Go," he called curiosity the attribute that "has kept me going."
This wide-eyed actress, who was born Ruth Elizabeth Davis in 1908, was best known for her unforgettable roles in films like "Jezebel"and "All About Eve." But the unconventional-looking Davis had to fight hard for success in a film industry that favored traditional beauties. Davis had to fight to get a contract with Warner Brothers, and once she was under contract, she had to fight the studio for the kind of roles she wanted. But eventually, Davis did earn acceptance -- and finally praise from Hollywood, earning two Oscars and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. The inscription that graces her tombstone at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills was originally suggested by Joe Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed her in "All About Eve." Bette Davis died of breast cancer in 1989.
This epitaph comes from a cemetery in Thurmont, Md., and it's made many lists of top humorous tombstone quotes (along with, "I told you I was sick," from a Florida cemetery). When author C.S. Lewis was told about the inscription, he reportedly replied, "I bet he wishes that were so" [source: Lewis]. It's unclear who the atheist in question was (the headstone bears no name) or whether his assumption about the afterlife (or lack thereof) was accurate.
George Johnson wasn't famous in life. In fact, his only claim to fame was this apologetic epitaph. Johnson bought a stolen horse in good faith but the court didn't buy his story and sentenced him to hang. They realized their mistake, but by then it was too late for Johnson. His final resting place is Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Ariz., which is also "home" to many notorious characters of the Wild West, including Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, who died during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Eccentric actress Joan Hackett started her career on Broadway, and then became a regular on TV throughout the 1960s and 1970s, appearing on popular shows like "The Twilight Zone" and "Bonanza." Hackett became known almost as much for stubbornness as for her acting. She drove directors nuts with her demands, which included a full 10 to 12 hours of sleep for her to perform at her best. While she was resting she didn't want to be disturbed, so she used to hang a note on her door that read, "Go away -- I'm asleep." In 1983, when she died of ovarian cancer at age 49, the same words graced her gravestone, providing Hackett some much-needed peace and quiet during her eternal slumber.
"Called back" may seem like too pithy a final statement from a poet who was well known for her way with words. Yet these words have a special significance. In 1885, while she was bedridden with liver disease, Dickinson sent a note to her cousins bearing this short phrase. Dickinson was likely foreshadowing her own death, which would come on May 15, 1886. Over her lifetime, Dickinson wrote almost 2,000 poems, many of which addressed the subject of dying. Her famous line, "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me" would have made another fitting epitaph.
The birth date of this Wells Fargo agent is not recorded, but the cause of his death, in 1880, couldn't be clearer. The .44-caliber in question belonged to a customer named Frank Dunston, who was reportedly angry over a package that arrived late -- and damaged. Dunston was so angry he shot Moore. Before Moore hit the floor, he fired off a shot that killed Dunston, but it was already too late for him. Moore was laid to rest at Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone, Ariz., where he shares ground with several gunslingers who also met with a violent end, including three men who were killed during the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Country music legend Hank Williams recorded 66 songs during his brief career -- and a whopping 37 of them topped the music charts. Tunes like "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Honky Tonk Blues" have remained alive long after their singer, recorded and re-recorded by new generations of country musicians. Williams died in the back seat of his blue Cadillac convertible on New Year's Eve, 1953 while on the way to a performance. The cause of death remains unclear to this day. He was just 29 years old. Williams' gravestone in Montgomery, Ala.'s Oakwood Cemetery Annex is inscribed with several of his song titles, including this one, which shot straight to number one after his death.
Dee Dee Ramone is best known for helping to launch one of the most influential punk bands in history--the Ramones. After leaving the band in 1989, he went on to have a successful solo career, and even wrote a few books. Just a few months before Ramone's 2002 death of a drug overdose at age 49, the band was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. In his acceptance speech, Ramone expressed his unique sense of humor by saying, "I'd like to congratulate myself and thank myself and give myself a pat on the back" [source: Devenish]. His epitaph, likely a reference to the Ramones hit, "Blitzkrieg Bop," proved he was witty to the end. Dee Dee was buried near guitarist Johnny Ramone at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles (their headstones list their real names, Douglas Colvin and John Cummings).
The Chairman of the Board's optimistic epitaph comes from his 1964 hit of the same name. Though he lived life his way, a heart attack ultimately did the celebrated crooner in on May 14, 1998 at age 82. The 700 guests in attendance at his funeral, which included actors, musicians, and political figures such as Tony Bennett, Ed McMahon, Gregory Peck, Don Rickles, and Nancy Reagan, confirmed Sinatra's status as music royalty. Actor Kirk Douglas predicted that with Sinatra's arrival, "Heaven will never be the same" [source: Cheakalos]. Though he was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra was buried (along with a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter and a bottle of Jack Daniels) in the city he'd come to call home -- Palm Springs, Calif. -- which had named a street in his honor.
When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered these immortal words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, he created a landmark moment in the fight for civil rights. Sadly, Dr. King would never live to see the full realization of his "I Have a Dream" speech. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Eighty thousand mourners attended his funeral, which was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Atlanta church where he'd once preached. Today, King is buried at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, his gravestone inscribed with those famous words, which he'd borrowed from a spiritual of the same name.
This self-deprecating gravestone humor shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that the comedian who is buried beneath it was well known for complaining, "I don't get no respect." Dangerfield (who was born Jacob Cohen) first joined the comic circuit while performing at resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains. He's probably best known for movies like "Caddyshack"and "Back to School," and for lines like, "When I was born, I was so ugly that the doctor slapped my mother." After delivering thousands of one-liners, Dangerfield died in 2004 at age 82, from complications following heart surgery. In the end, he did get respect. Fans covered his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with flowers, and fellow comedian Adam Sandler called him, "a hero who lived up to the hype" [source: Guardian].
Who hasn't heard of the "Man of a Thousand Voices?" When Mel Blanc died of heart disease and emphysema in 1989 at age 81, 20 million people listened to his voice daily -- though he was such a vocal chameleon they may not have even realized it was him. During his career with Warner Brothers, this versatile voice actor created some of the most famous cartoon characters in television history, including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Woody Woodpecker, and Sylvester the Cat. It was Blanc who gave Bugs Bunny his catchphrase, "What's up, Doc?" And viewers always knew they'd reached the end of the cartoon when they heard his Porky Pig say, "That's all folks!" When Blanc was buried in the Hollywood Forever cemetery, he made this closing line his own final farewell.
Belushi was at the top of his career in 1982 when he was found dead of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles. At just 33 years old, he was already one of the top comic actors in the country. He was an original cast member on the late-night NBC show, "Saturday Night Live" (where he perfected the phrase, "But nooo" that inspired his epitaph) and he starred in the hit movie "Animal House." Belushi is buried at Abel's Hill, a cemetery on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. Dan Aykroyd, his co-star in "The Blues Brothers," served as one of his pallbearers. Ultimately Belushi's gravesite was trampled by so many ardent fans that in 1985, his family finally moved him to a quieter spot a few spaces over. By then, his wooden casket had already rotted through and the always-unpredictable Belushi tumbled right out.
Aside from leading England through World War II, this two-time British Prime Minister was probably best known for his wit -- which is clearly displayed in this epitaph. Churchill first uttered this quip on his 75th birthday, when a reporter asked him if he was afraid of dying (which he obviously was not). When Churchill did die of a stroke, on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90, the words were permanently inscribed on his gravestone at St. Martin's Church, Bladon in Oxfordshire. Apparently he was ready to go, as his last words reportedly were, "I'm so bored with it all."
A backronym is, well, a backwards acronym. See how much you know about backronyms by taking this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
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- BBC News. "Milligan gets last laugh on grave." May 24, 2004. (January 5, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/southern_counties/3742443.stm.
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