Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Last week in this space I presented some deathless prose — my favorite famous last words that, undimmed by time, strike us as especially humorous or noble.

But the exit lines that we utter from our deathbed are not necessarily our last words to the world. Our final message can be the epitaph (from a Greek word that means “tomb”) inscribed on our gravestone. Epitaphs date back to the earliest Egyptians, but it was not until Elizabethan England that tombstone messages began to acquire literary and witty qualities.

While the dead cannot read their own epitaphs (unless they return as ghosts), some people have taken the precaution of writing theirs before they leave this life. Unsurprisingly, some of the most eloquent of epitaphs are composed by authors:

William Shakespeare called down a curse on anyone who might disturb his grave, perhaps, some cynical wags contend, fearing that a grave robber might discover evidence that he was not the author of the plays ascribed to him:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake for beare
To dig the dust enclosed heare:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

On Edgar Allen Poe’s tombstone in Westminster Presbyterian Cemetery in Baltimore:

Quoth the Raven,
“Nevermore.”

 In America, no epitaph is better known or more elegantly crafted than the one that Benjamin Franklin prepared for himself in 1728. Even in death he was eloquent:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer,
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents turned out
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here, food for worms,
Yet the work shall not be wholly lost;
For it shall, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new, more beautiful edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.

On the headstone of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior appear the immortal words he spoke on August 8, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial:

Free at last. Free at last.
Thank God Almighty
I’m Free at last.

Mark Twain’s beloved daughter died tragically young. For the child’s headstone the bereaved father wrote:

Warm summer sun shine kindly here
Warm southern wind blow softly here.
Green sod above, lie light, lie light.
Good night, dear heart, good night, good night.

Other early deaths have inspired other moving epitaphs:

Here a pretty baby lies,
Sung to sleep by summer skies.
Pray be silent and not stir
The easy earth that covers her.

For gentleness and articulated feeling it may be that none of these epitaphs for human beings surpasses this one created by the romantic poet Lord Byron, who wrote on the tomb of his Newfoundland:

Near this spot are deposited
The remains of one who possessed
Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man,
Without his Vices.
This praise, which would be
Unmeaning Flattery
If inscribed over human ashes,
Is but a just tribute
To the Memory of Boatswain,
A Dog.

In next week’s column I’ll unveil a row of humorous epitaphs.