I’m sure my student meant that the marble tombstone would be engraved with some poem or Bible verse that had meaning for the deceased, or for the family. But his statement could mean that the stone will carry proverbs, or slogans, or quotations from the well-known “famous man” whose words often begin graduation speeches, as in “a famous man once said….” So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the family will erect a marble stone covered with sayings and snippets such as “To be or not to be,” “He who hesitates is lost,” “If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde,” “What goes around comes around,” “He groweth up like grass which today shall be mowed down,” “So it goes,” and “f=ma.”
But my student also offers an alternative. Here’s the full sentence:
“The family may choose to have a marble tombstone with meaningful sayings, or maybe it will be a plane piece of cobblestone with their epithet.”
He mentions no middle ground between the stately marble tombstone and the cobblestone (plane or lumpy). Webster’s defines a cobble, or cobblestone, as “a naturally rounded stone larger than a pebble and smaller than a boulder, especially such a stone used in paving a street or in construction.” Ordinary though a cobblestone might be, then, my student has presumably dignified it with that plane surface. If boulder-size, it might make a nice grave marker; if only a little larger than a pebble, not so much. How large is the typical cobblestone, say, like the ones in the historic street in Ithaca NY (is it still there?)? Not very large, but probably big enough for an epithet.
I mix up the “epi” words myself: epigram, epigraph, epithet, epitaph. I always look them up—which is the difference between me and my student. An “epigraph” or “epitaph” would be appropriate on a memorial stone. That marble one might also be inscribed with “epigrams,” presumably “terse, sage, or witty.”
“Epithet” is a little different. Will the family epithet, or the epithet of the deceased family member, be an heroic one, like Hector of the Shining Helmet, or kingly, like Ethelred the Unready? Or will it be a more common one, like “Old Weird Harold,” “Louie ‘Three Fingers’ Rizzo,” or “Hilda, That Bitch”? Stones such as that would make graveyard visits pretty entertaining!
Although I plan to be cremated, I do enjoy playing around with “last words” for “my tombstone.” It’s an entertaining exercise, trying to scrunch a whole life plus attitude into a single phrase. The current front-runner is “Blind-sided again!”—which I think pretty well sums me up. Maybe I can get someone to make a rough cobble plane and then engrave that for me. Or turn it into an epithet: RA the Blind-Sided.