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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Epitaphs

Thomas Jefferson, no date, Epitaph

Thomas Jefferson, no date, Epitaph. This sketch accompanied Jefferson’s notes on his preferred epitaph.

An epitaph is an inscription on a headstone. Some epitaphs are sentimental, some summarize the person’s achievements, and still others are wry reflections on life and death. By necessity, epitaphs typically must be relatively brief. The collection includes the epitaph Jefferson wrote for his wife:

To the
Memory
of
Martha Jefferson,
Daughter of John Wayles,
Born Oct. 19. 1748. O.S.
Intermarried with
Thomas Jefferson
Jan 1. 1772.
Torn from him by death
Sept. 6. 1782
This Monument of his love
Is Inscribed.

From “Thomas Jefferson, September 6, 1782, Epitaph on the Death of Martha Wayles Jefferson”

Jefferson also gave consideration to his epitaph and, from his many accomplishments, selected three to be inscribed on the obelisk he designed for his gravesite. Jefferson specified that “not a word more” be inscribed: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.”

  • How would you describe each of the two epitaphs written by Jefferson? How are they alike? How are they different?
  • What does the proposed epitaph for himself tell you about Jefferson’s reflections on his life’s work? Would you have selected the same three accomplishments if you had been asked to write his epitaph? Why or why not?
  • Choose another historical or contemporary figure you have studied and write an epitaph highlighting the three most important achievements of that person’s life. If possible, use an autobiography or other document written by the person to support your choices.