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An Essay On Epitaphs
by [?]

AN ESSAY ON EPITAPHS[1].

[1] From the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Though criticism has been cultivated in every age of learning, by men of great abilities and extensive knowledge, till the rules of writing are become rather burdensome than instructive to the mind; though almost every species of composition has been the subject of particular treatises and given birth to definitions, distinctions, precepts and illustrations; yet no critick of note, that has fallen within my observation, has hitherto thought sepulchral inscriptions worthy of a minute examination, or pointed out, with proper accuracy, their beauties and defects.

The reasons of this neglect it is useless to inquire, and, perhaps, impossible to discover; it might be justly expected that this kind of writing would have been the favourite topick of criticism, and that self-love might have produced some regard for it, in those authors that have crowded libraries with elaborate dissertations upon Homer; since to afford a subject for heroick poems is the privilege of very few, but every man may expect to be recorded in an epitaph, and, therefore, finds some interest in providing that his memory may not suffer by an unskilful panegyrick.

If our prejudices in favour of antiquity deserve to have any part in the regulation of our studies, epitaphs seem entitled to more than common regard, as they are, probably, of the same age with the art of writing. The most ancient structures in the world, the pyramids, are supposed to be sepulchral monuments, which either pride or gratitude erected; and the same passions which incited men to such laborious and expensive methods of preserving their own memory, or that of their benefactors, would, doubtless, incline them not to neglect any easier means by which the same ends might be obtained. Nature and reason have dictated to every nation, that to preserve good actions from oblivion, is both the interest and duty of mankind: and, therefore, we find no people acquainted with the use of letters, that omitted to grace the tombs of their heroes and wise men with panegyrical inscriptions.

To examine, therefore, in what the perfection of epitaphs consists, and what rules are to be observed in composing them, will be, at least, of as much use as other critical inquiries; and for assigning a few hours to such disquisitions, great examples, at least, if not strong reasons, may be pleaded.

An epitaph, as the word itself implies, is an inscription on a tomb, and, in its most extensive import, may admit, indiscriminately, satire or praise. But as malice has seldom produced monuments of defamation, and the tombs, hitherto raised, have been the work of friendship and benevolence, custom has contracted the original latitude of the word, so that it signifies, in the general acceptation, an inscription engraven on a tomb in honour of the person deceased.

As honours are paid to the dead, in order to incite others to the imitation of their excellencies, the principal intention of epitaphs is to perpetuate the examples of virtue, that the tomb of a good man may supply the want of his presence, and veneration for his memory produce the same effect as the observation of his life. Those epitaphs are, therefore, the most perfect, which set virtue in the strongest light, and are best adapted to exalt the readers ideas, and rouse his emulation.

To this end it is not always necessary to recount the actions of a hero, or enumerate the writings of a philosopher; to imagine such informations necessary, is to detract from their characters, or to suppose their works mortal, or their achievements in danger of being forgotten. The bare name of such men answers every purpose of a long inscription.

Had only the name of Sir Isaac Newton been subjoined to the design upon his monument, instead of a long detail of his discoveries, which no philosopher can want, and which none but a philosopher can understand, those, by whose direction it was raised, had done more honour both to him and to themselves.