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Headstones are big, expensive, and permanent, so you want to get it just right. The headstone inscription can be a lengthy description or a short sentence or anything in between, but whatever length or style you want it done well.
These tips are based from the classic three or four line setups:
3 line with top line:
3 line with epitaph:
The top line is often something like “In Loving Memory” or “At Rest”. The epitaph line is typically a brief quote or phrase that sums up the deceased’s life.
12 Headstone Inscription Tips
1. Choose someone to oversee the task
This will be one person in your family who can do the research, figure out what it should say, find (or negotiate!) the best price, and just get it done.
While this person should accept input from other family members, my experience working with families on cremation urn inscriptions tells me that group decisions rarely work out for everyone. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen, things go awry. Especially once revisions and changes start getting made, all bets are off.
Better to have one person in charge who will make a good job of it. As long as the name and dates are on there, it will be just fine.
2. Take your time
A headstone is a big purchase. You should never be pushed into something you don’t want, or rushed and end up forgetting something important. Or, heaven forbid, you should make a mistake on the birth or death date.
Take the time to think through what you want. The wording, the font, the style. Then, once you have everything, double-check the spelling and date from the birth certificate and also the date from the death certificate. It’s surprising how easy it is to get a birth or death date wrong, especially with all the stress surrounding the death, funeral, and burial. Take your time.
3. Keep it simple
Simple minimalism = classy and always in style. You won’t go wrong by keeping it short and sweet.
Headstones can involve so many bells and whistles, add-ons, and personalized options. The choices are really overwhelming. With so many options, it seems like you have so many ways to get it just right. But in the final tally you will find that the opposite is true. With so many options, it is just so many ways to mess it all up.
Instead, go for understated class. Name and dates for sure, and consider a brief inscription or quote. Keep the ornamentation simple; a flower or a cross will often look way better than engraved or sublimated images of dogs and kids and whatnot.
Keep it simple and you will not only keep the costs down but end up with a better and more beautiful headstone.
4. Avoid trends
Choose lettering and styles that are timeless. Serif fonts will always look good on a headstone. You can choose between all-caps and a mix of upper and lowercase (or a combination of both styles) and it will look great.
But avoid script, styled, and sans-serif fonts. These can look cool, and maybe they’ll be in style 30 years from now when the trends loop around again, but in 10, 15, or 50 years you will regret falling prey to the trend of farmhouse fonts or whatever is “in” this year.
5. Avoid humor
Yes, the deceased probably had a wonderful sense of humor. But humor is tricky; something that seems funny today might not seem quite as witty years later. Cultures and tastes change, and the written word (especially the formal style required on headstones!) is much different than a wisecrack told in person within a given context.
It’s just too difficult to capture a sharp, fun sense humor on a headstone in a timeless way. Our advice? Skip it. Save it for the memorial scrapbooks and photo albums, and let the headstone stay simple, classy, and timeless.
6. Remember that your loved one is already unique
Personalization is the buzz word in the funeral industry right now. People are customizing their funerals more than ever, leading to crazy things like Viking sendoffs, dance parties, fireworks, and more.
That’s all fine and good. You want the memorial to reflect reality, because each person truly is unique.
But sometimes the push towards making everything unique strikes me as a bit of overcompensation. Perhaps it’s a way to work through regrets or come to terms with a difficult situation. In any event, it is perfectly acceptable to decide that the personalization of their name and dates is enough.
Remember that your loved one already is unique. There is no way that any phrase, poem, or image can capture them completely or perfectly. And that’s ok.
7. Choose a good first line
Everyone does “In Loving Memory.” That’s a classic, and it is perfectly fine. But if you are committed to keeping it simple and avoiding trends, you can still allow yourself a bit of constrained creativity.
Consider alternate opening lines, like some of these:
- In Memorium
- In Remembrance
- Happy Memories Of
- In Fondest Memory Of
- In Treasured Memory Of
- Here Lies
- In Honored Memory Of
- In Cherished Memory Of
- A Life Well Lived
- At Home
- At Rest
- Gone Too Soon
8. Avoid clutter
In harmony with the “keep it simple” tip, it’s a good idea to avoid clutter whenever possible. For instance, rather than writing out the entire birth and death dates, some headstones are adorned with only the years.
9. Aim for emotional resonance
The descriptive line that comes after name and date is another one that can easily become cluttered. Many inscriptions are swamped with adjectives and attributes: “Loving and devoted wife of John and mother of Suzanne, Ellen, Tyler, and Nathan” etc.
Instead, choose a well-composed sentence that sums up what you are trying to say: “Her acts of kindness will be treasured.” This is the sort of thing
10. Be inspired by the classics
If you find it difficult to create your own emotionally resonant inscription, get inspired by the best. Choose a line from a poem, hymn, song, Scripture, or famous author. These are words that have already had a profound impact on many people in your generation or throughout history. Why not go with the greats?
11. Ask the headstone maker their opinion
Sure, some headstone cutters just want to quit and go home, while others will advise you to add all the costly special features. These types will try to sell you on the easiest or the most ornate options. That sort of advice is easy to spot and ignore.
But most dedicated craftsmen take pride in their work and won’t steer you wrong. Try asking them about the classiest headstone, or the most meaningful, or the most interesting. Ask what they will put on their headstone. A few creative questions directed at an expert should yield helpful and fascinating insights.
12. Think about your return visits
Try to think ahead. What headstone inscription, quote, or description of your loved one will you treasure a year from now? Five years from now? After all the fuss and bother, once the stream of frozen lasagna dries up, what will warm your heart? What will stir up the most fond memories?
Keep it simple, think about the character qualities that truly resonate, and go with your heart. Those are the words you will recognize and treasure at each return visit to the grave site.
Headstone Inscription Examples
Most headstone inscriptions will include the name and dates.
Names. Use the decedent’s full legal name. This includes middle name(s) and any suffixes such as Jr. or III.
Sarah Marie Ellmore
Jackie James Gleason IV
Arlenis Kahlo Gutiérrez
If the decedent had a nickname, it’s ideal to place it in quotes after the first given name. For example, if Joe Smith was known to everyone as “Pops”, the traditional setup would read:
Joe “Pops” Smith
Dates. Sometimes people choose to write out “born” and “died,” but typically just the dates separated by a dash or on two lines will suffice. The traditional formula for dates includes the month spelled out followed by the date, a comma, and the year.
September 13, 1922 – August 1, 2007
Other variations on the dates:
9/13/1922 – 8/1/2007
13 Sep 1922 – 01 Aug 2007
1922 – 2007
Born: 9/13/22 Died: 8/1/07
Headstone Sentiments. Often families will add a brief quote, saying, verse, or sentiment. This can be as simple as “In Loving Memory” or “Forever Loved” above the name and dates. It can get as lengthy or detailed as you like (or can afford).
Here are a few examples of additional things to say on the headstone inscription:
Always in Our Hearts
Forever Loved, Forever Missed
Rest In Peace
In the Arms of Jesus
Until We Meet Again
Loving Husband and Devoted Father
Beloved Wife, Mother, and Grandmother
Well done, good and faithful servant
The best is yet to come
We hope you have found this article to be of help! Pin it to your memorial or funeral board for handy reference later.