Nobody lives forever, but some people have gained immortality through the incredible actions and accomplishments they achieved while alive. And these moving epitaphs poignantly sum up what made these icons of literature, culture, and history so great. They’re truly the perfect reminders of why we still remember them long after they've gone.
1. Rick James
He always seemed larger than life, so it makes sense that Rick James’ headstone is bigger than death as well. Engraved on the stone is a picture of the Super Freak singer himself — who passed away in 2004 — brandishing his trusty bass. And underneath it reads triumphantly, “I’ve had it all, I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all.”
2. Elvis Presley
Following his untimely death in 1977, Elvis was buried on the grounds of Graceland, his former Memphis mansion. And in recognition of his monumental contribution to culture, his epitaph reads, “God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with him.” Wherever Elvis is now, we can only hope it's filled with rhinestone-studded suits and peanut butter and bacon sandwiches.
3. Bette Davis
Anyone who’s ever seen the TV miniseries Feud knows just how much of a firebrand actress Bette Davis really was. And naturally, her Los Angeles resting place pays tribute to the star’s headstrong personality. Etched onto her sarcophagus are the words, “She did it the hard way.” It's a fitting homage to such a determined character.
4. Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s music always had the uncanny ability to make people feel good — even when he was singing about loneliness and sorrow. And his optimism is perfectly encapsulated in the song “The Best is Yet to Come” — a phrase that also serves as the epitaph on his paired-back Palm Springs headstone.
5. Sylvia Plath
By the time of her tragic death in 1963, Sylvia Plath was a leading contemporary female poet and undeniable literary great. However, her Heptonstall, England gravestone doesn’t bear her own poetry, but a quote from Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. Regardless, the inscription serves as a fitting epitaph for such a pioneering artist: it reads, “Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus can be planted.”
6. Bernie Mac
At the time of his 2008 death, Bernie Mac had only just become a household name thanks to TV hits like The Bernie Mac Show. And yet his Homewood, Illinois grave doesn’t highlight his stature as a comedian; it focuses more on how much his absence is felt. In plaintive tones, the epitaph reads, “We’ll love you forever.”
7. John Belushi
Thanks to his star turn in The Blues Brothers, John Belushi is perhaps the closest thing to a rock star the comedy world ever had. Fittingly, his headstone in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, bears a striking skull and crossbones. In a similar vein, its inscription reads, “I may be gone, but rock and roll lives on.”
8. Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield certainly had many people who looked up to him, even if he often said “I can’t get no respect.” He was known for his biting comedic style and his sarcastic wit, and both live on thanks to the devilishly funny inscription of “There goes the neighborhood” displayed on his Los Angeles grave.
9. Emily Dickinson
Before her death in 1886, Emily Dickinson went largely unnoticed in the literary world. But today, she’s remembered as one of the 19th century’s greatest poets. Reflecting her own life of modesty and adherence to Christian values, the writer’s simple Amherst, Massachusetts gravestone merely states that this under-appreciated genius was “called back.”
10. Jackie Gleason
Although best-known for TV shows like The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason had a successful singing career too. And when he passed away in 1987, the comedian’s estate chose to honor this side of the talented artist. Indeed, his sarcophagus in Miami, Florida bears the inscription “And Away We Go” — the title of one of his biggest songs.
11. Walt Disney
During his lifetime, Walt Disney fronted a media empire of films, toys, and amusement parks. But for all his wealth, the animation pioneer’s Glendale, California gravesite is a remarkably modest affair. Next to a statue of The Little Mermaid, the tomb features an inscription bearing just his and his family’s names. We're sure it's all Fantasia magic up top, though.
12. Johnny Cash
Known as “The Man in Black” to his fans, Johnny Cash was perhaps the most famous voice in country music. Following his 2003 death, the famed singer was buried in Hendersonville, Tennessee next to his wife June Carter, who had died earlier that year. And above the tomb is engraved the title of Cash’s most famous song, “I Walk The Line.”
13. Andy Warhol
Famed for his pop art and experimental filmmaking, Andy Warhol continued his avant-garde sensibilities even after his passing in 1987. In fact, his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania gravestone is something of an art project itself. Besides being decorated by fan-left Campbell’s soup cans, the gravesite is also watched by two cameras delivering a constant online stream for eager viewers. What are they expecting to see, we wonder?
14. Cindy Walker
Although she often avoided the spotlight, Cindy Walker was a legend behind the scenes. Before her 2006 death, the country and western music specialist penned songs for everyone from Dean Martin to Roy Orbison. In honor of her songwriting talents, the artist’s Mexia, Texas resting place features a statue of a guitar propped up beside her grave.
15. Louis Armstrong
Throughout his life, jazz musician Louis Armstrong was affectionately known as “Satchmo.” And it was this affectionately uttered moniker that the iconic trumpeter chose to take with him into the unknown after his death in 1971. Engraved above his birth name on his Flushing, New York headstone, this nickname speaks to how much this legend was loved by all.
16. Leslie Nielsen
Despite starting his career as a dramatic actor, Leslie Nielsen is best remembered for his knack for comedy. So much so, in fact, that the Airplane! star had a joke etched onto his Fort Lauderdale, Florida grave. Emblazoned on the plaque are the words “Let ’er rip” — a nod to the actor’s own love of flatulence gags.
17. William Shakespeare
Universally accepted as history’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare could write poetry and prose like no other. So it makes sense that the scribe penned his own epitaph before his 1616 death. Unlike the beauty of the Bard’s prose, however, the words on his Stratford-upon-Avon tomb — “cursed be he that moves my bones” — are a barbed warning to grave robbers.
18. Jayne Mansfield
Some stars strive to be forever young. And Jayne Mansfield — who made lying publicly about her age a habit — had this wish come true… in a way. Although the Hollywood icon died in a car crash aged 34 in 1967, her Hollywood, California memorial fudged her date of birth to make it look like she passed at 29.
19. Oscar Wilde
Certainly, there’s more than one way to pay your respects. But for fans of playwright Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for homosexuality and released only a few years before his 1900 death, it seems only a kiss will suffice. Over the years, visitors to Wilde’s Paris grave have left so much lipstick on the limestone that authorities have been forced to encase the stone in glass to help protect it.
20. John Wayne
John Wayne was the epitome of masculinity during his Hollywood heyday, but the epitaph on his Newport Beach gravestone pays homage to the actor’s sensitive side, too. And this quote — taken from a 1971 interview — also implores those saddened by his death to focus on “tomorrow” instead of on the past. "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life."
21. Jules Verne
Jules Verne’s science fiction pushed the limits of the human imagination. And so his tomb in Amiens, France shows a similar disregard for the boundaries of humankind. Created two years after the author’s 1905 death, the monument that adorns the grave depicts Verne himself breaking out of the ground and reaching for the stars.
22. Merv Griffin
Merv Griffin was beloved by multiple generations of viewers thanks to his 24-year stint as the host of The Merv Griffin Show. And this sad epitaph — seen by his Westwood, California grave — celebrates his TV roots, as well as the warm respect he had for his audience. "I will not be right back after this message," expresses loud and clear his thoughts on the afterlife.
23. Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe is perhaps Gothic literature’s most influential figure, and he became renowned for his dark and macabre works of poetry and short fiction. Accordingly, then, his Baltimore gravestone is emblazoned with a tribute to his most famous work, “The Raven” – a fitting poem that will surely be quoth forevermore.
24. Dean Martin
As one of Dean Martin’s most popular songs, “Everybody Loves Somebody” seems a fitting epitaph to have on the crooner’s Los Angeles grave. And what's more, the simple phrase is a monument to the comfort his music gave to millions around the world. A pretty poignant and powerful message for such a small plaque.
25. Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder changed Hollywood with film noir classics like Sunset Boulevard, but — for many — his talents as a director and screenwriter were best put to use in comedy. And perhaps for this reason, Wilder’s Los Angeles grave references his most beloved film Some Like it Hot and its wickedly funny final line. "I'm a writer. But then, nobody's perfect."
26. Jack Lemmon
Jack Lemmon was a regular collaborator on Billy Wilder’s movies, and he has a similarly humorous streak to his Los Angeles memorial. Indeed, the actor’s headstone pokes fun at both his stardom and his own death. All in all, it’s a touching tribute to his inexhaustible wit. We'll let you come up with your own title for Lemmon's final role.
27. Jesse James
In 1882 infamous outlaw Jesse James was killed for a bounty by his underling Robert Ford. However, James had the last laugh, with his Kearney, Missouri grave serving as a one-digit salute to his former protégé. Indeed, his original headstone (since replaced by surviving family) referenced Ford as “a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”
28. Isaac Newton
To many in his time, Isaac Newton’s pioneering work in physics made him a God amongst men, and the scientist’s Westminster Abbey tomb plainly pays tribute to this. The inscription, translated from Latin, reads, “Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament to the human race.” Clever and modest!
29. Mel Blanc
You might not recognize Mel Blanc’s face, but the star had the most famous voice in Hollywood and brought many classic animated characters to life. Now, however, Blanc is forever linked with his pioneering work voice work for Looney Tunes, as his Los Angeles gravestone bears a fitting farewell line from one of the animated series’ most beloved cartoon characters, Porky Pig.
30. Oliver Hardy
Of all the epitaphs that could be ascribed to Oliver Hardy, you might think that “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into,” would be the most fitting. In actuality, though, Hardy’s Hollywood grave sports a beautifully direct message which refers to the performer as “a genius of comedy.” We think that just about sums it up, don't you?
31. Stan Laurel
Likewise, Hardy’s friend and performing partner Stan Laurel also has a touchingly forthright epitaph by his Los Angeles grave. The tribute similarly refers to him as a “master of comedy,” before stating that “his genius in the art of humor brought gladness to the world he loved.” And his work still continues to bring joy, to this very day.
32. Dee Dee Ramone
One of the founding members and songwriters of The Ramones, Douglas Glenn Colvin was a pioneering figure in punk rock. In honor of his contribution to music history, his Hollywood, California headstone bears his stage name Dee Dee Ramone as well as his band’s sigil. It also bears the inscription “OK…I gotta go now” — a likely reference to his 1976 hit “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
33. Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman's headstone is nothing short of an epic, which is perhaps to be expected given his writing credentials. Whitman is celebrated as one of America’s greatest poets, and his elegantly written epitaph could have slipped straight from one of his notepads. That’s because his Camden, New Jersey headstone reads, “His poetry was a celebration of life and his philosophy was a preparation for death.”
34. Sammy Davis Jr.
A true entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr. truly could do it all. As a singer, dancer, actor, and impressionist, Davis Jr. was something of a polymath in the showbiz world. And the inscription on his Glendale, California headstone certainly pays homage to his wide-ranging accomplishments, just through the simple phrase “He did it all.” Well, who can argue with that?
35. F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote five novels and countless short stories during his lifetime. On his grave, however, he will be forever remembered for his classic The Great Gatsby. As an ode to his legacy, the Rockville, Maryland tomb he shares with his wife Zelda is emblazoned with the novel’s fitting final quote. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
36. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix rarely relied on words to express himself or his art; indeed, his legendary guitar skills were all the musician ever needed to get his point across. And as if to demonstrate this fact one last time, his Seattle gravesite features only a brief inscription, leaving its grand scale to mark his legacy. Rock on, right into the afterlife, Jimi.
37. Robert Frost
Another giant of American poetry, Robert Frost, outlined his own epitaph in the final stanzas of his poem “The Lesson for Today.” The line, which states that Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world,” is replicated on his Bennington, Vermont headstone, and it perfectly encapsulates his attitude to love, life, and death.
38. Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King remains undoubtedly one of the most important figures in U.S. civil rights history, having fought tirelessly for the fair treatment of countless African Americans. And although his life was taken a mere four years after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, the epitaph on his Atlanta gravestone commemorates his legacy with his own iconic words.
39. Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison’s Paris grave is one of the most-visited sites in rock history, and it has been adorned with graffiti tributes over the years. However, the Greek inscription on his headstone — which reads “True to his own spirit” — is all The Doors singer needs to commemorate his iconoclastic lifestyle. A perfect example of how to head out in style.
40. Ed Wynn
Famed for films like Mary Poppins, comedian Ed Wynn could make the sternest face crack into a smile. In fact, protégé Red Skelton told TIME magazine that Wynn’s 1966 death was “the first time he ever made anyone sad.” Nevertheless, his Glendale, California grave is suitably side-splitting, featuring as it does the pithy inscription, “Dear God: Thanks.”