Epitaph Culture in the West

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This book examines a number of facets of Western epitaph culture since antiquity, with particular emphasis on post-medieval developments in the major European countries as well as in North America. Various epitaphic “sub-cultures” are analyzed, among them the time-honored custom of composing one’s own tomb inscription as well as the ancient and modern convention of honoring animals with epitaphs. It also examines epitaph-collecting, epitaph “lies,” humorous epitaphs, and the change in social and religious attitudes toward suicides. The book concludes with a cultural and intellectual history of epitaphs. An epilogue addresses the question of the supposed disappearance of epitaph culture at the present time.


“A lesser scholar might content himself with merely presenting the cornucopia of eccentric outliers in western vernacular culture such brief texts offer – everything from Roman grave memorials to Elvis Presley’s monument at Graceland – but Guthke’s study of commemorative textual phantasmagoria not only amuses and shocks, it presents the reader with a highly ordered universe and looks to elucidate the underlying ‘rules’ that generate the need felt throughout the centuries, including our own, with its on-line ’virtual cemeteries,’ to have a last word on the dearly departed. An extraordinary achievement, blending sober scholarship, revealing proclamations and subtle insights, Epitaph Culture in the West is a study in western cultural history no serious student of popular culture will want to miss.” – Stephen A. Mitchell, Harvard University

“… it is as much about life as about death, in this case, about the changing meaning of epitaphs over the centuries for those who wrote them and the communities they wrote them for. Guthke’s exploration of these changes yields manifold insights into historical anthropology and cultural and intellectual history from antiquity to the present…. This is an eminently readable and entertaining book, at the same time based on extensive knowledge of the original material and of the vast secondary literature in various languages. It will open new avenues for scholars and epitaph-hunters alike.” – H. B. Nisbet, University of Cambridge

"Karl Guthke defines his goal in this book as "to examine virtually the entire body of printed Western anthologies of epitaphs, with a view to determining the reason why they were assembled, or in other words, in the hope of identifying, on the basis of whatever editorial comment or apologia there may be, the specific nature of the fascination that inspired them." (36) What emerges is a comparative study, beginning roughly from the start of European printing, of the evolution of one of the most broadly based con- ventions of Western culture, which serves to identify the evolution of values, contents, and functions enshrined in the form. As love and death are among the most central of human concerns (perhaps only surpassed by the needs for mere survival), the study falls broadly into the discipline which Zevedei Barbu has called "Historical Psychology", and this is confirmed by the generalizations about attitudes to death consolidated in the book's epilqgue. These conclusions are not directly devoted to the literary or broadly aesthetic co":rIsiderations which govern many studies of such texts, but to their social origins and purposes which have been broadly established by previous scholars such as Philippe Aries ... In the course of these investigations, Guthke cites many memorable and amusing epitaphs, some familiar, others obscure, so that there is much incidental pleasure of a familiar kind available in this study ... This anthropological emphasis is offset by Guthke's recognition of previous scholarly efforts with aesthetic concerns; indeed, the author scrupulously consolidates both the enormous secondary literature on epitaphs, and the numerous collections of them to which it is devoted, in a way which makes his work a valuable source of reference. Overall his own views are presented discreetly and plausibly, providing a source of comparison for analogous studies in cultUral history by earlier scholars." - Besprechungen

Table of Contents

Table of contents (main headings):
Introduction: Cultural Memory: Verities and Curiosities of Epitaph Lore
1. Anthologies of Epitaphs: Motivations and Uses
2. “Lying Like an Epitaph”? The Ethics of Dishonesty
3. Do-It-Yourself Immortality: Writing One’s Own Epitaph
4. Last Laughs: Levity in the Cemetery
5. Talking Stones: Last Words on Suicides
6. “Almost Human – but Loyal”: Epitaphs on Animals
7. Who Were We, or Who Are We? A History of Epitaphs
8. Epilogue: The Silence of the Tombs: The Epitaph Vanishes, or Does It?

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