Poetry from Headstones

By James O’Hanlon

Composing poetry on the themes of death or mourning has been a staple part of a poet’s trade since time immemorial. For grieving relatives, embellishing the gravestones of loved ones with a suitably affecting verse has become customary, though as we shall see from some examples, it is a custom that might, on occasion, be honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Adding a quatrain, a sonnet or a villanelle to an inscription might be construed as gilding the lily; as the following verse on the Milliken headstone in Bangor Abbey advises:

Epitaphs on tombs are praises vainly spent
Their own good name was their best monument

However, many bereaved individuals have felt the need to sum up the positive attributes of their lost loved ones by selecting a specific piece of verse that suggests the depth of the loss or the estimable qualities of the departed. This poetry tends inevitably towards the tearful, but it can also be humorous, hubristic, humbling, minatory, or, on occasion, deeply offensive. This essay on these lyrical laments attempts to bring some thematic coherence to an art form that is populist in the true sense of the word.