How to Choose a Headstone
A guide to choosing a headstone for a loved one who has died
If you are arranging a burial for someone who has died, one of the things you might be considering is a headstone for their grave. This traditional tribute is not always a feature of modern memorials, but is still very common.
The person that has died might have already chosen, or even purchased a headstone, but if you have to do it yourself, the decision can be challenging. The range of models, designs, sizes and prices can seem endless, and a headstone can emphasise the reality of their death before you have started the healing process. However, once it is installed, it can be a helpful focal point to reflect on their life.
In this guide we look at everything you need to think about when choosing a headstone.
What is a headstone?
A headstone, or gravestone, is a stone or slate marker placed at the head of a grave in a cemetery. After the mound of earth on top of the grave settles, usually several months after the burial, the headstone becomes the main way of marking the person’s grave.
Memorial, or monumental masons carve them from several different types of hard stone and install, or ‘fix,’ them above the grave.
In addition to the person’s name and life-dates, headstones are usually inscribed with an epitaph reflecting on what they meant to their family
Grave-markers are an ancient tradition, but technology is now available that enhances traditional graves even further. Some masons can now install a weather-proof QR code, as a real sign of the future of funerals, on the headstone that links to an online obituary.
Headstones do not feature in all cultures’ funeral customs, but they are part of some religious funerals and aren't typically associated with Jewish and Muslim practices. Most masons, including some specialist providers, can carve headstones designed for members of these faiths, engraved with a Star of David or a star and crescent.
The death of a child is perhaps the most difficult bereavement to cope with, but many masons provide specific headstones to commemorate their personality and interests. The design of these memorials range from teddy bears to trains and spaceships. Bespoke memorials can also be carved for you.
The British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons (BRAMM) has a directory that can be searched for companies in your area.
Not all memorial masons are members of the association, and there is no legal requirement for this, but some Burial Authorities insist that anyone installing a headstone in one of their cemeteries has a BRAMM ‘fixer licence.’
It is important to remember that the size and design of the memorial you choose for your loved one must be approved by the Burial Authority responsible for managing the cemetery they are interred in.
Headstones installed in cemeteries owned by a diocese of the "Church of England" or other religious organisation, usually have their own rules for appropriate designs, which they can discuss with you.
Some local Burial Authorities have websites that list their regulations, but many can be difficult to contact; if necessary, your funeral director, or the mason commissioned to carve the memorial, can advise you on this.
Types of headstone
Once you know the rules that apply to your choice of headstone, the main consideration, apart from budget, is a design that is appropriate to the person that has died.
If your loved one was not religious then, even if they had a traditional funeral, angels or crosses might not be appropriate, so secular imagery, such as hearts or books, might be more suitable.
There are several different types of headstone and cremation memorials that you can choose from. If you know that your loved one did not desire anything ostentatious then a simple lawn memorial, or memorial vase, rather than a kerb set, might be better for them.
The traditional image of a headstone is actually described as a ‘lawn memorial.’ The simplest designs for this type of headstone are rectangles with square, rounded, or ogee tops, which can be carved with designs, such as crosses, roses or angels. A range of more elaborate shapes, such books, hearts or celtic crosses is also available from most masons.
Brass flower-holders can also be included in the base of the headstone.
A traditional kerbed set is the largest and most elaborate design for headstones commonly installed in cemeteries. The front of the memorial includes a stone kerb that outlines a rectangle above the grave that can be filled with natural or coloured chippings, or soil for a flowerbed. Brass flower-holders can also feature in it. The additional area allows for the incorporation of more extensive carvings in the design.
Not all burial authorities permit kerbed memorials because of their size, but these are still a popular choice in cemeteries that do allow them.
A memorial ledger is a stone slab that lies flat on top of the grave. The surface area of the stone is much larger than either a lawn memorial or kerb set and can feature a longer inscription. An upright headstone can also be incorporated at the top end of it, to highlight the words, with the ledger slab featuring a horizontal carved design.
Ledger memorials are probably the least common type of headstone, and might not be permitted in some cemeteries, but this type of memorial can be a good choice if you cannot visit it often; covering the grave with the slab means that the area does not have to be regularly maintained.
If someone is cremated it is not necessary to scatter all of their ashes, and some families prefer to bury them in a cemetery so that they have a memorial to visit. Our guide to cremations has a lot more information on the subject.
Cremation memorials are usually smaller than headstones. The simplest designs are flat tablets, but can be larger, with carvings and brass flower-holders.
If your loved one would have preferred a smaller, simpler tribute, a memorial vase can be a good choice. The model for most memorial vases is a brass flower-holder set in a stone cube. There is usually space for a short inscription on the front of the cube. Memorial vases can be installed on burial or cremation plots.
Materials and finishes
Headstones are normally carved from granite or marble, which is available in a variety of colours. Some natural burial grounds that do permit markers only allow headstones carved from stone that is not quarried overseas. Granite and marble can be sourced in the UK, but York and Portland are popular native stones. Slate can also be used for lawn memorials. Granite is the most hardwearing of these materials, but is therefore the most difficult to carve, which reduces the scope for designs, and increases the price. Marble is very attractive, but dirt and wear can become quite noticeable.
The finish on the headstone is also variable. The face of the stone is normally polished to highlight the inscription, but the top and sides can be kept ‘rustic’ for a softer, more natural appearance.
The range of materials and finishes you can choose from depends on the type and model of the headstone. Many designs are only available in specific materials, but most masons will be happy to discuss this with you.
Choosing the wording for the epitaph on a headstone is perhaps the most important decision to make before ordering it. Some popular inscriptions for a traditional epitaph include:
-Rest in peace
-In loving memory of
-Forever in our hearts
-A wonderful husband, father and grandfather
You can also choose something more unique, that reflects their personality, from profound to humorous.
Inscriptions can be carved or painted onto the headstone and the mason who provides the memorial should have a catalogue of typefaces and colours that they can use. The number of characters that can be included in the inscription depends on the type and size of the memorial.
The price of headstones varies significantly, depending on several factors, including the type and size of stone, detail in the design, and the number of characters in the inscription.
The minimum cost of a tablet cremation memorial generally starts at around £350, whereas a full kerb-set can cost £5000 or more.
The cost of inscribing and installing the headstone is usually included in the price of it.
Bespoke headstones from larger companies or artisan masons can be designed to your unique specifications, but the price of these memorials can start at thousands of pounds.
Most memorial masons have online catalogues of the models of headstone that they can provide, which clearly list the price of different options.
Installing a headstone
An important thing to remember when planning a funeral is that the headstone cannot be installed immediately after the burial. It is common for burial authorities to forbid it until several months after the interment to let the ground settle and reduce the risk of subsidence. Cremation memorials can usually be installed immediately.
The authority or the mason can advise you on the regulations for a specific cemetery. Most cemeteries are always open so you can visit the grave at any time before the memorial is installed. This delay might feel frustrating, but it does give you time to consider the most appropriate design and inscription for your loved one.
Additional inscriptions and repairs
When someone who was bereaved of their spouse or partner dies themselves, they often want to be interred in the same plot. After they die you can have the headstone removed and updated with an additional inscription. If you need more information the it's worth checking out our extensive guide to buying a burial plot.
Headstones survive for centuries, but if they become dirty, damaged or worn memorial masons can repair or restore them. The headstone will also have to be temporarily removed for this work. If necessary, the grave-owner can also decide to have a headstone totally replaced.
The cost and time required to complete additional inscriptions or repairs depends on the size and design of the headstone, and the service provided by the mason responsible for it.
Choosing a headstone for a loved one can be an emotional experience, but hopefully this guide will make it less daunting. If you need advice on anything else related to arranging a funeral and bereavement support we have much more information in Help and Resources.