20 Memorable Epitaphs

By: Stephanie Watson & the Editors of Publications International, Ltd.  | 

Merv Griffin's tombstone
Talk show host Merv Griffin's tombstone shows that some carry a sense of humor for eternity. Photo taken in the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, Westwood, California. Joseph McKenna/Getty Images

They might be 6 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 Jesse James, here lie 20 of our favorite gravestone inscriptions.

Advertisement

20: John Yeast: "Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not rising."

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, New Mexico 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.

Advertisement

19: Spike Milligan: "Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite."

Spike Milligan's gravestone
Spike Milligan's gravestone bears a Gaelic translation of his famous epitaph "I told you I was ill." Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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.

Advertisement

18: Ludolph van Ceulen: "3.14159265358979323846264338327950"

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.

Advertisement

17: Jesse James: "Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here."

Jesse James Boyhood Home, Original Gravesite and Monument
Jesse James' epitaph tells the story of his death.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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.

Advertisement

16: Studs Terkel: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

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."

Advertisement

15: Jack Lemmon: "Jack Lemmon in..."

Jack Lemmon's grave
Jack Lemmon's grave in Westwood, California. Barry King/WireImage/Getty Images

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.

Advertisement

14: Bette Davis: "She did it the hard way."

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.

Advertisement

13: Dee Dee Ramone: "OK...I gotta go now."

Dee Dee Ramone tombstone
Fans pay tribute to Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone at the Fifth Annual Johnny Ramone Tribute in Oct. 2009. Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

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 & 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).

Advertisement

12: From a Maryland Cemetery: "Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go."

This epitaph comes from a cemetery in Thurmont, Maryland, 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." 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.

Advertisement

11: Emily Dickinson: "Called back."

Emily Dickinson's Gravestone
Emily Dickinson's gravestone.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

"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 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.

10: Joan Hackett: "Go away — I'm asleep."

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.

9: Lester Moore: "Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a 44, no Les, no more."

Les Moore tombstone
The sad fate of Lester Moore is spelled out on this epitaph. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Image

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, Arizona, where he shares ground with several gunslingers who also met with a violent end, including Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury who were killed during the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as well as George Johnson (see No. 6).

8: Rodney Dangerfield: "There goes the neighborhood."

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].

7: Hank Williams: "I'll never get out of this world alive."

Hank Williams tombstone
Many of Hank Williams' most famous songs are inscribed on his tombstone. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

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, Alabama's Oakwood Cemetery Annex is inscribed with several of his song titles, including this one, which shot straight to No. 1 after his death.

6: Frank Sinatra: "The best is yet to come."

Frank Sinatra tombstone
The simple tombstone and grave of singer Frank Sinatra at Desert Memorial Park near Palm Springs, California reminds visitors that "The Best Is Yet to Come." Robert Alexander/Getty Images

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 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, 10 dimes and a bottle of Jack Daniels) in the city he'd come to call home — Palm Springs, California — which had named a street in his honor.

5: George Johnson: "Here lies George Johnson, hanged by mistake 1882. He was right, we was wrong, but we strung him up and now he's gone."

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, Arizona, 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.

4: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I'm Free at Last."

tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King
The tombs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King remain at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta, Georgia. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered these immortal words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 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, Tennessee. 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.

3: Mel Blanc: "That's all folks!"

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.

2: John Belushi: "I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on."

John Belushi's grave
Comedian and actor John Belushi's grave at Abel's Hill Cemetery, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

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" 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.

1: Merv Griffin: "I will not be right back after this message."

Griffin was a well-known talk show host and media mogul. Two of the game shows he created, "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy," are still on the air today, after debuting in 1964. Griffin originally started out as a big band singer, then switched to hosting gigs. His talk show "The Merv Griffin Show" ran for 21 years. He was also a real estate tycoon, acquiring the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California and Resorts International. Griffin died in 2007 of prostate cancer. His epitaph, "I will not be right back after this message" is a nod to a common phrase used on his talk show.

Originally Published: Sep 15, 2007

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Associated Press. "Rodney Dangerfield Dead at 82." MSNBC. October 7, 2004. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/6187136/ns/today-entertainment/t/rodney-dangerfield-dead/#.TwcSns3J0tk
  • BBC News. "Milligan gets last laugh on grave." May 24, 2004. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/southern_counties/3742443.stm.
  • Browne, Sylvia. Afterlives of the Rich and Famous. HarperCollins, 2011.
  • Cheakalos, Christina. "So Long, Sinatra." People. June 8, 1998. (Jan. 6, 2012) https://web.archive.org/web/20140120014004mp_/http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20125464,00.html
  • CNN. "Actor Jack Lemmon dead at 76." June 28, 2001. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://articles.cnn.com/2001-06-28/entertainment/lemmon.obit_1_ensign-pulver-china-syndrome-oscars-for-best-actor?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ
  • Dee Dee Ramone.com. "About Dee Dee Ramone." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://deedeeramone.com/about.html
  • Devenish, Colin. "Dee Dee Ramone Dies." Rolling Stone. June 6, 2002. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/dee-dee-ramone-dies-20020606
  • Escott, Colin. "Hank Williams." PBS. Aug. 10, 2005. (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/hank-williams/about-hank-williams/734/
  • Escott, Colin, George Merritt and William MacEwen. Hank Williams: The Biography. Hachette Digital, 1994.
  • Grimes, William. "Studs Terkel, Listener to Americans, Dies." New York Times. Oct. 31, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/01/books/01terkel.html?pagewanted=all
  • Guardian staff. "Respected comic Dangerfield dies aged 82." The Guardian. Oct. 6, 2004. (Jan. 6, 2012). http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/oct/06/news1.
  • Haubold, Kathrin. Emily Dickinson's Life and Poetry. GRIN Verlag, 2011.
  • Hochman, David. "What George Carlin Told Me About the Afterlife and What He'd Like on His Tombstone." HuffPost. June 23, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2012) huffingtonpost.com/david-hochman/george-carlin-on-heaven_b_108723.html
  • Jacobsson, Sarah. "A Brief History of Pi." PC World. March 13, 2010. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.pcworld.com/article/191389/a_brief_history_of_pi.html
  • Kasner, Edward and James Newman. Mathematics and the Imagination. Courier Dover Publications, 2001.
  • Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Gibbs Smith, 2004.
  • Koon, George William. Hank Williams, So Lonesome. University Press of Mississippi, 1983.
  • Lawson, Tim and Alisa Persons. The Magic Behind the Voices: A Who's Who of Cartoon Voice Actors. University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Lefever, Harry G. and Michael C. Page. Sacred Places: a guide to the civil rights sites in Atlanta, Georgia. Mercer University Press, 2008.
  • Lewis, C.S. Christian Reflections. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.
  • Perry, John. Winston Churchill. Thomas Nelson Inc., 2010.
  • PBS. American Experience. "The Death of Jesse James." (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/james-death/
  • PBS. "Emily Dickinson." (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/poet/dickinson.html
  • Rubin, Gretchen Craft. Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life. Random House Digital, Inc., 2004.
  • Sceurman, Mark, Mark Moran and Matt Lake. Weird U.S. The ODDyssey Continues. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.
  • Slater, Tom and Marsha Dixey. Political and Americana Memorabilia Auction. Heritage Capital Corporation, 2005.
  • Stanton, Scott. The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon and Schuster, 2003.
  • Terkel, Studs. Touch and Go: A Memoir. The New Press, 2008.
  • Time. "Top 10 Celebrity Grave Sites." (Jan. 6, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1919236_1919237_1919226,00.html
  • Thise, Mark. Hollywood Winners & Losers A to Z. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2008.
  • Warner, Gary. "Cemetery tours — a who's who of Hollywood." Jan. 10, 2006. (Jan. 5, 2012) p://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10778941/ns/travel-destination_travel/t/cemetery-tours—-whos-who-hollywood/#.TwXba828o2I
  • Wiersbe, Warren W. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: The Complete New Testament. David C. Cook, 2007.

Featured

Advertisement

Loading...