Debate that has lasted for centuries: James Fergusson, Obituaries Editor, looks at the controversial history of the epitaph, which has long been subject to scrutiny several reports that the wording of epitaphs has always been subject to scrutiny

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The Independent Online
THE REV Stephen Brian is no lone voice in his campaign for the straight epitaph, nor has the 20th century any monopoly of graveyard correctness. The subject of graveyard inscriptions has been controversial ever since the language of death changed from Latin to the vernacular.

In the beginning, epitaphs were clean, straightforward and comprehensible only to the multiliterate classes. They opened Hic iacet ('Here lies') and confined themselves only to names and packdrill: who you were, where you came from, how old you were, what you did and when you died. They might end 'RIP' (Requiescat in pace, 'Rest in Peace'), but other comment was superfluous.

You expressed your individuality by adding variations of pictorial ornament - skulls and crossbones, hourglasses, sickles and spades. Frugality demanded that your wife (and even your children) shared your headstone.

It was not until the 14th century that monumental masons broke into English and even then for several centuries a decent funerary conservatism was maintained. Instead of Hic iacet, there appeared 'Here lyeth the body of', 'To the memory of', and, begging the passer-by directly, 'Pray for the soul of'. Only grandees, with money to spend and reputations to keep up, strayed from this quiet norm and they had their monuments erected inside rather than outside the church, probably with effigies attached, or elaborate monumental brasses of themselves.

But the 18th century saw a literary flowering in the graveyards of England. No longer were bare facts enough. Local squires and village wits vied in the elaboration and jollity of their tributes. Punning, acrostics and pious adjectives proliferated. By the 19th century, it had become so bad that the expression was coined 'to lie like an epitaph'.

In 1843, the Rev F E Paget, Rector of Elford in Staffordshire, thundered in his Tract upon Tombstones that the erection of a tombstone should be 'a Christian act and one that shall benefit the living'. He said: 'The tombstones in the churchyard are, as it were, a book, from whence (visitors) draw their reflections on man's mortality and in which every new inscription is a fresh page.' A proper epitaph, he went on, 'should be characterised by Christian humility, kindness, and by a disposition to say too little rather than too much'.

'Here lies John Bun,' runs one epitaph much anthologised, 'Who was killed by a gun. / His name was not Bun, but Wood, / But Wood would not rhyme with gun, / But Bun would.'

'Here lies Fred,' ran a spoof epitaph for Frederick, Prince of Wales, father of George III, 'Who was alive and is dead: / Had it been his father, I had much rather; / Had it been his brother, / Still better than another; / Had it been his sister / No one would have missed her; / Had it been the whole generation, / Still better for the nation: / But since 'tis only Fred, / Who was alive and is dead, - / There's no more to be said.'

While modern diocesan chancellors may stamp on such affectionate colloquialisms as 'dad' and 'grandad', they have succumbed to every other cliche in the lapidary book. Walk through a 20th-century graveyard in search of reflections on mortality and all you find are snatches from old hymns ('There is a green hill far away'), sad sentiments from scripture ('Glory to God'), and banal farewells ('He will be much missed'). Surely we can do better than that.

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