How to Punctuate Your Epitaph

It was brought to my attention (I love the phrase, because I envision velvet-liveried footmen bringing a notion—one resting on a purple pillow—to me) that there is a book that takes a studied look at the history of parentheses, their use over the ages, their value as a species, their contributions not only to the literature, but as an aesthetic component of thought.

It is called But I Digress. Not only is this a work of 344 pages, its purchase price is $175. My.

Because I enjoy the employment (though not the moral obligations) of a good pair of parentheses myself, that spurred me to consider how the lovely little tocks and notches of punctuation create a soft side-current in the river of thought, an accent note, like how you might detect a whiff of elderberries in your Cabernet Franc, though its main train to your nostrils is peopled with toffee and raisin bread. Punctuation is the conductor’s wand to the orchestra’s melding of swelling verbal notes.

That got me to mulling over how the use of punctuation in some spare composition—an epitaph, say—might be the axis for delivering meaning. On the subject of epitaphs, writers should always write their own. You could do worse than emulate the sing-song declarativeness of some of the lines in the famed Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch:

He’s pining for a fjord
His metabolic processes are now history
He’s run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible

Categorizing Your Tombstone Tokens
Fine epitaphs, but in regards punctuation, those Pythonesque parrotings are lacking. Consider a few categories:

Friendly – A simple phrase like “Loads o’ fun” works well. The apostrophe indicating the omitted “f” is casual and merry, and bespeaks geniality. What about an Elizabethan elision: O’er teacakes and waistcoats, I did preside

Marketing – Employ the marketer’s cudgel: the exclamation point. Something like Dead! Thoroughly! Special Offer to Repeat Visitors!

Brevity – Though he spoke it, the one-word sign-off for Dan Rather’s news broadcast all but shouted (and because it was one word, also intimately whispered) that the word ended with a full stop: Courage. You could try something like Stewing. Or maybe Ennui.

Needs Answering – And the interrogative ending will surely get your plot’s visitors mulling over meaning: Mind getting me some water? or, Do you know that hat makes you look like a monkey?

Pauses and Ponderings – I like a nice mix of colons and semicolons on a stone: Note to self: I’ll nap here; at some point, I’ll have to do laundry.

Corral Your Word Cattle – And of course we have to visit what prompted this business in the first place, the exalted parenthesis: Keep the peace (and keep your hands off my wife). or Here I lie. (Hey, it’s better than stealing.)

Closing with a Bang
This post is going on a bit, so I’ll wait til later to address that charming, coy curve, the comma; the happy hand-me-the-baton linker, the hyphen; and that dashing fellow—the dash—but I do want to close with a bang: an interrobang, that is.

A combination of the question mark and the exclamation point (dubbed on Wikipedia as a “quesclamation” mark), the bang is implying the asking of a question in a heightened state. Perhaps for an epitaph, something like “Christ, all this and they give me a view of the Safeway‽”

Rest easy, folks. And make sure your punctuation rests with you.

Follow the blog by email and give us a nod on social:

13 thoughts on “How to Punctuate Your Epitaph

  1. Shawn, it’s a simple extension of the Creative or Commercial post (but thank god, edited a bit more), which is, of course, all about nothing. But the essence of nothing, with spice. And bacon.

    Thanks for dropping in!

  2. Jodi, I’m trying to conceal that I’m working with the pork and beer industry by larding my work with SEO-inspired “Gacks” and “Bacons.” I only slipped in the one bacon on the sly, because it was greasier than the others. (There is a steganographically hidden “Gack,” of course.)

  3. After reading this I’m reminded of Lucy Van Pelt responding to her brother’s latest antic: “Who needs it?” Perhaps a fitting epitaph as well!

    Regarding commas, Gertrude Stein was of the opinion “Who needs them.” (She didn’t use question marks either.)

    Tom, I’m off to order my headstone.

  4. Daniel, “Who Needs It?” is a fine epitaph (and might even be worthy of an interrobang). I do like Gertrude’s ‘tude, but in her case, not even a box of commas could have untangled some of the prose.

    I do enjoy some sparsely punctuated works occasionally, like some of Cormac McCarthy’s stuff, but he’s a master. In the wrong hands, lack of punctuation is like taking the stop signs off the road.

  5. True. I tried to read Jose Saramago once, without success. Had to give it the “Dorothy Parker” treatment.

    (This book should not be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force).

  6. Dorothy Parker, what a dear. She would have been fun at the dinner table, or under the table. She might have smoked a stogie now and then too…

  7. Hi I need help with punctuation, I have two epitaphs that need commas, but I have no idea where to put them. I cannot afford to make any mistakes with the headstone. Please help, they are as follows:

    A man of resilience who stood boldly against adversity rest in the hands of our heavenly father forever

    An angel that was heavenly sent now returned to the lord so warm and loving never to be replaced remembered forever

    Your feed back will be most appreciated.


  8. Richard, I wasn’t certain if you were serious (though epitaphs are serious business, you can see my post took a bit of a jester’s stance). However, to address your work, here’s how I would handle it:

    A man of resilience, who stood boldly against adversity: rest in the hands of our heavenly father forever.

    An angel that was heavenly sent, now returned to the lord. So warm and loving, never to be replaced, remembered forever.

    Thanks for writing, and I’m sorry for your losses, Tom

  9. Hi, Tom, thanks for your help, it really means a lot.

    Someone told me today that there is no need to put punctuation marks on headstones, so I walked around my local cemetery just to read a few and what I saw actually confused me because some do have commas full stops but the majority don’t.
    I don’t know if you have realized this?

  10. Richard, sure, there is no definitive need, but there is a sensible reason: clarity of message. The punctuation helps a reader to feel the full impact of the statement. Sometimes you want a message to move quickly, sometimes not. For many reasons, punctuation can carry the subtle aspects of a sentence. And yes, I have noticed that many stones with longer messages aren’t punctuated, but in many cases, it’s to the reader’s detriment. So, my feeling is: make your message clear, and punctuation helps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.