Famous Last Words: 15 Authors’ Epitaphs

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In this the spookiest of months, we find ourselves occupied with the world’s darker themes, and we got to wondering — what words have sent famous men and women of letters into the great unknown? Or perhaps more precisely, which words were chosen to honor them for eternity? From the tongue-in-cheek to the ponderously serious, from the knightly to the poetic, and even one that doubles as a grave robber’s curse, we’re fascinated by the epitaphs of famous authors, so we’ve collected a few of them here for your shivering pleasure. After the jump, read the final goodbyes to fifteen famous authors, and let us know if we missed your favorite literary epitaph in the comments.

D.H. Lawrence

“Unconquered.”

Lawrence was cremated, and his ashes were mixed in with cement used to create a memorial altar in New Mexico. However, he also got billing on the family grave. His epitaph in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, “Homo sum! the adventurer,” is perhaps best of all, however. [Image via]

Virginia Woolf

“Death is the enemy. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding o Death! The waves broke on the shore.”

This quote is from the end of Woolf’s novel The Waves, chosen by Leonard Woolf for the memorial plaque he put in their backyard.

Charles Bukowski

“Don’t try.”

Not as depressing as it seems: Bukowski explained the phrase in a 1963 letter to John William Corrington, writing “Somebody at one of these places … asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.” [Image via]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“Steel True Blade Straight”

Proper words for a knight’s final resting place if ever we’ve seen them.

John Keats

“This Grave contains all that was Mortal, of a Young English Poet, Who, on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart, at the Malicious Power of his Enemies, Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Though Keats’ last request was that he be buried under a blank tombstone with no name or date, only “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Armitage Brown were so outraged at the poet’s negative critical reception during his life that they felt they had to elaborate.

Robert Frost

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

An excerpt from his poem “The Lesson for Today.”

Emily Dickinson

“Called back”

A direct quote from the letter thought to be Dickinson’s last, sent her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross shortly before her death, which read, “Little Cousins, Called Back, Emily.” [Image via]

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby

We wonder how Zelda feels about spending eternity under the weight of her husband’s most famous work.

Dorothy Parker

“Excuse my dust.”

Parker was cremated, and upon her death, donated her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s assassination, there was a drawn-out fight over the Parker estate that resulted in her ashes sitting in a filing drawer for more than two decades. Excuse her dust, indeed.

Sylvia Plath

“Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted.”

This is a slight misquote from from Wu Ch’Eng-En’s Monkey, chosen by Plath’s husband Ted Highes. The original reads “even in the midst of fierce flames the Golden Lotus may be planted.” Also note the repainted “Hughes” after the first was scraped off by Plath fans who thought he has destroyed her. [Image via]

Oscar Wilde

“And alien tears will fill for him Pity’s long broken urn, For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.”

This except from Wilde’s own poem “The Battle of Reading Gaol” turned out to be rather prescient, if all those lipstick marks are any indication. [Image via]

William Shakespeare

“Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here: Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.”

According to Shakespeare scholar Dr. Philip Schwyzer, the author “had an unusual obsession with burial and a fear of exhumation. The stern inscription on the slab has been at least partially responsible for the fact that there have been no successful projects to open the grave… His epitaph marks his final, uncompromising statement on a theme that preoccupied him throughout his career as a writer for the stage.” So stop trying to dig up up for drug tests, okay? [Image via]

Ben Jonson

“O Rare”

Jonson’s decline by the time of his death was so great that his epitaph was set by a passer-by, John Young, who saw the unmarked grave in Westminster Abbey and paid a workman to inscribe it. He stole the epitaph from William D’Avenant and spelled Jonson’s name wrong. Sigh. [Image via]

George Eliot

“Of those immortal dead who live again In minds made better by their presence”

From Eliot’s poem “The Choir Invisible.”

H.P. Lovecraft

“I am Providence.”

A line from one of Lovecraft’s personal letters, referring to his beloved hometown, where he was happiest and most prolific.