What words should I put on a headstone? What carvings could I include? What stone should I use?
I make hand carved memorials, and I am asked these questions on a daily basis.
Choosing a memorial can be a great source of anxiety and stress for the bereaved. On the other hand, if you take your time and do not hurry, it can be a therapeutic and comforting experience, and the memorial that you create for your loved one can be the greatest gift.
No two headstones should be the same; each one should be unique just as each person is unique. Here is some advice to help you choose the perfect memorial:
1.Take your time. No headstone should be erected for at least nine months after the death, and in many cases I advise waiting a year before creating a headstone. Time allows you to think and to gain a longer term perspective on what you want the headstone to convey; after all, it will be there for hundreds of years to come.
2. Do not be restricted to lists of epitaphs supplied by monumental masons. Choosing from a set list of poems or quotes forces you to pigeon-hole your emotions and feelings into someone else’s thoughts. The wording should speak to you and you alone. That is not to say that you should not have a look at examples of quotes by others, only that you need to keep your options open. When you come across the right epitaph you will know deep down. Epitaphs can be inspired by poetry, music, speeches and the Bible. Often the wording will be yours or those of your loved one, especially if they wrote poems or had a favourite saying. Here is a list of some of my favourite epitaphs and poems.
3. Decide who you want the words to speak to. Do you want them to speak to members of the public or do you want the words to be a personal message to your loved one? You might choose some very intimate words that could be hidden from view beneath the ground; a secret message from you.
4. Less is often more. The shortest and simplest epitaphs are often most powerful and moving. For example “so loved” says more than a thousand words. What is left unsaid can be more powerful than what is said. For example taking a snippet from a quote and then using ellipses can be very effective.
5. Do not be confined to the front of the headstone. If there is a longer quote you want to use you could place it on the back of the stone, or use the edge of the stone for the name and dates in order to free up the front for a poem. The material will determine the suitability of a stone for carving along the edge.
6. There is no law which says you have to include the full dates or names. Often it can be more effective if you just include the years. Once I was asked to carve simply the first name, and it was perfect.
7. Avoid trends. Fashions come and go.
8. Before you choose the wording, consider what sort of material you want for the memorial. If there is a particular stone you want, you might need to take this into consideration. For example, if you wanted a pale Portland limestone headstone which weathers quite quickly, this needs strong, bold lettering and thus would not accommodate a long poem unless the stone was very big. Slate on the other hand can take small, fine lettering. Some people prefer to start with the wording and then choose an appropriate stone to fit the wording, others work the other way round. You need to bear in mind that there may be size restrictions in place and you would need to check with the cemetery or churchyard before choosing the stone.
9. Decide if you might want a carving. Sometimes an image can be more powerful than words and can be used instead of an epitaph. Almost anything that can be drawn can be carved into stone. An image may be chosen because of its symbolic meaning, or simply because it reminds you of your loved one, whether it be a favourite flower, or something related to their interests or vocation, for example a pair of dancers or a racing horse. Popular gravestone symbols include trees, stars, birds and a gilded, sunken disc, which can represent eternity.
10. The words themselves can form a symbolic circle which could echo eternity and eternal life.
11. Do not forget other senses like touch. For a child you might want to choose a stone which is tactile and smooth to the touch with rounded edges that invites you to feel its warmth. Sometimes people ask me to carve a hole in the centre of the stone which can also have rounded edges, inviting people to touch it.
12. Finally, listen to your heart. Do not be hurried or pressured by others to make a quick decision. Some people feel ashamed of leaving the grave unmarked for a long period. You can mark it with a simple wooden cross until you are ready, and when you finally erect a beautiful tribute, it will be there for many years to come.
Updated: October 9, 2015