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29 Unforgettable Epitaphs

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In a way, the epitaphs on gravestones are your last words to the world—and they’re literally written in stone. From political to humorous (and sometimes both), here are 29 people who had more to say than “RIP” or “Beloved wife.”

1. Leonard Matlovich

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1975, Leonard Matlovich, a Purple Heart-decorated member of the Air Force, became the first gay member of the U.S. military to publicly out himself. His fight to keep his military job made the cover of Time magazine in 1975. When he found out he had AIDS in 1986, Matlovich wrote his own epitaph and arranged to be buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Both became a reality when he died two years later.

2. Gabriel Williams

Find a Grave // Dustin Oliver

Presumably, Gabe Williams' family decided to combine his two biggest passions on his tombstone: Gymnastics and rock music.

3. Kay

Family Tree Magazine // Dan Convery

A reddit user tested the recipe and was unimpressed. Your mileage may vary.

4. Andrew J. Olszak

FindAGrave // Michael Cannon

There's no more permanent way to stick it to your family after you're gone than to engrave your disappointment on your tombstone.

5. Rodney Dangerfield

Stacy Conradt

Apparently comedian Rodney Dangerfield wanted to leave 'em laughing.

6. Billy Wilder

Stacy Conradt

And writer/filmmaker/producer/artist Billy Wilder had the same idea.

7. George Spencer Millet

FindAGrave.com // Susan Kane

While it was once commonplace to put cause of death on gravestones, this particular demise was anything but run-of-the-mill.

8. Nathaniel Grigsby

ActiveRain.com

According to Snopes, there's quite the story behind Grigsby's final words. As Abraham Lincoln's friend and extended family member (his brother married Lincoln's sister), Grigsby blamed the Democratic party for his death and, indeed, the entire Civil War. Twenty years after Lincoln was assassinated, Grigsby dictated his own epitaph as he lay on his deathbed and asked one of his sons to make sure the inscription was carried out.

9. Robert Clay Allison

Plazak,WikimediaCommons // CC BY-SA 3.0

As one of the most accomplished gunslingers in the Old West, Allison killed his fair share of people. According to his friends, though, Allison was a gentleman—he never killed a man who didn't have it coming.

10. Russell Larsen

FindAGrave // Candice xo

The saying on Larsen's grave is apparently well-known to many cowboys—but not many cowboys have immortalized it on their tombstones.

11. Bill Kugle

FindAGrave // Doug Zabel

Bill Kugle was a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Can you guess which party he belonged to?

12. Mary Dolencie

FindAGrave // eobfindagrave

Word to the wise: Don't anger cat ladies. When Mary Dolencie died in 1985, she wanted the world to know how angry she was at Whaling Port, her housing association. She believed her neighbors had it in for her, complaining about the number of cats she had and how she attracted pigeons to the area by feeding them. To get revenge, she had a curse engraved on her tombstone—but the people of Whaling Port say that so far, even decades later, things seem to be just fine.

13. Shakespeare

David Jones, Wikimedia Commons //CC BY 2.0

Shakespeare's epitaph was thought to have been written by the Bard himself to prevent his corpse from being dug up for research purposes, which was commonplace at the time. So far, his warning seems to have worked.

14. Cecil O’Dell Eads

FindAGrave // magjo

15. Herman Harband

FindAGrave says that this stone is actually a cenotaph—a memorial of sorts— not an actual gravestone. After exacting revenge on his wife, Harband arranged to be buried elsewhere. Upon his death, his wife sold the empty plot and had the cenotaph removed. It's supposedly still in storage at Beth David Memorial Gardens in Hollywood, Florida.

16. Fran Thatcher


FindAGrave // Number1

17. Leslie Nielsen

'

FindAGrave// Traci Barbour

The famous funnyman had his epitaph planned for close to 15 years. He died in 2010, but said in a 1996 interview that he intended to put "Let 'er rip" on his gravestone. There's also a bench dedicated to Nielsen nearby; it's inscribed with "Sit down whenever you can."

18. Bette Davis

FindAGrave // Jim Tipton

As the story goes, after Bette Davis worked with director Joseph Mankiewicz on All About Eve, he mentioned that "She did it the hard way" would someday make an appropriate epitaph for her. When Davis died in 1989, she took him up on the suggestion.

19. Jerry Bibb Balisok

FindAGrave // Graveaddiction

Jerry Bibb Balisok's epitaph is the story of a heartbroken mother. Balisok disappeared in 1977, two weeks before he was to stand trial for writing bad checks. After not hearing from her son for two years, Marjorie Balisok, his mother, became convinced that she had spotted her son's body in a picture of aftermath of the Jonestown massacre. The State Department and the FBI investigated Jerry Balisok and concluded that he never left the United States, but Marjorie was positive her son was dead, and furious that she was unable to cash in on his insurance money since there was no body.

Unfortunately, Marjorie died in 1983—seven years before her son would resurface under an assumed name. He was convicted of attempted murder and given a 20-year prison sentence in 1993.

20. Anonymous Democrat

Reddit // wiskerbiscuts

A cemetery worker stumbled across this political gem last year and posted it on Reddit. Users were quick to point out that the stone should say "principles."

21. Edith Tina Barlow

FindAGrave // gr8hobby

Short, though not terribly sweet.

22. Michael Leroy Luther

FindAGrave // Papaduck34

"Game Over" is a pretty fitting last phrase for an arcade game addict—and Michael Luther was so into this particular diversion that his sister had this distinctive stone designed when he died in 2007.

23. Dorothy Parker

You'd expect nothing less than a tongue-in-cheek epitaph from the acid pen of Dorothy Parker. She once suggested "Excuse my dust" as her final goodbye, and also "This is on me." 

24. Merv Griffin

Stacy Conradt

Legendary talk show host Merv Griffin wrote his own epitaph before his death, choosing this one over "I told you I was sick," a favorite amongst epitaph jokesters. People magazine reports that he chose "Stay tuned," but "I will not be right back..." must have won out before engraving was finalized.

25. Sir Jeffery Hudson

FindAGrave // ChristianFernandez

To be clear, Sir Jeffery Hudson didn't die from being baked in a pie. It was apparently just his claim to fame—one that follows him even more than 300 years after his death.

26. Helen Herczberg Gawara

FindAGrave// Neil

You can hear about Gawara's experience in this interview from the United States Holocaust Museum.

27. Dee Dee Ramone

FindAGrave // A.J. Marik

The Ramones rocker's epitaph is both laid-back and practical at the same time.

28. Lawrence L. Cook, Jr.

FindAGrave.com // Lawrence L Cook 3rd

Mr. Cook passed away in 2004 after "a long illness," and his wife died in 1999, so his epitaph is likely meant to make visitors laugh—not provide a recap of his last moments.

29. Jack Lemmon

Stacy Conradt

Before his death, Academy Award winner Jack Lemmon was able to specify that he wanted his tombstone to be his final marquee. His instructions were followed to the letter—not even dates of birth or death accompany the simple statement.

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T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal
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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.

Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

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Weird
7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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