S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
When the person is buried, the next care is to make his epitaph: they are generally reckoned best which flatter most: such relations, therefore, as have received most benefits from the defunct, discharge this friendly office, and generally flatter in proportion to their joy. When we read these monumental histories of the dead, it may be justly said that all men are equal in the dust; for they all appear equally remarkable for being the most sincere Christians, the most benevolent neighbours, and the honestest men, of their time. To go through an European cemetery, one would be apt to wonder how mankind could have so basely degenerated from such excellent ancestors: every tomb pretends to claim your reverence and regret; some are praised for piety, in these inscriptions, who never entered the temple until they were dead; some are praised for being excellent poets, who were never mentioned except for their dulness, when they were living; others for sublime orators, who were never noted except for their impudence; and others still for military achievements, who were never in any other skirmishes but with the watch.
The perusal of epitaphs is not to be considered as a frivolous and light amusement. If such only be the objects of attention as have been noticed with our applause, it is unquestionably an introduction to pleasing knowledge, and an incentive to moral improvement. What biography is to history, an epitaph is to biography. It is a sketch which marks the great outlines of character, and excites curiosity to view the portraits as painted on the pages of history.
Some of Johnsons whims on literary subjects can be compared only to that strange nervous feeling which made him uneasy if he had not touched every post between the Mitre tavern and his own lodgings. His preference of Latin epitaphs to English epitaphs is an instance. An English epitaph, he said, would disgrace Smollett. He declared that he would not pollute the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English epitaph on Goldsmith. What reason there can be for celebrating a British writer in Latin, which there was not for covering the Roman arches of triumph with Greek inscriptions, or for commemorating the deeds of the heroes of Thermopylæ in Egyptian hieroglyphics, we are utterly unable to imagine.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Crokers Edition of Boswells Life of Johnson, Sept. 1831.