12 tips for the headstone inscription

12 Headstone Inscription Tips To Get It Just Right

Last Updated on June 10, 2020

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.

To that end, here are 12 tips to help you get the headstone inscription just right. These tips work equally well for inscriptions on cremation urns, niche cover plates, memorial gifts, and more.

These tips are based from the classic three or four line setups:

3 line with top line:

Top Line

4 line:

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 Memoriam
  • 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.

Check out these beautiful grave markers that can be engraved with a photo of your loved one.

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 GutiƩrrez

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
Gone Fishin’
Together Forever
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

For more inscription ideas, see here, here, here, here, and here.


We hope you have found this article to be of help! Pin it to your memorial or funeral board for handy reference later.

How to get the headstone inscription just right

22 thoughts on “12 Headstone Inscription Tips To Get It Just Right”

  1. I like that you suggest aiming for emotional resonance with a custom engraved headstone. My dad was given only two weeks to live, so we are preparing for the next steps we need to take in this process. I will keep this in mind and discuss it with my siblings while we choose our next steps.

  2. Benjamin Andrews

    I like that you suggest taking your time in the design of the headstone. My brother recently lost his little boy, so I have been trying to pick up the slack, and plan a good celebration of life and burial. I will keep this in mind while I am conferring with them about what they want on the grave marker.

  3. My grandpa recently passed away and I am in charge of picking out his headstone, so I appreciate the tips in this article. You make a great point that I should take my time and keep the message simple. I think this is a great idea because a short and clear message that is memorable matches my grandpa’s personality perfectly.

  4. I like what you said about aiming for emotional resonance on a cemetery memorial. My uncle recently passed away. I would imagine my cousins will have to think hard about what they want and find a company that provides a headstone that they would like best.

  5. Hi Patty,

    Great question! It’s really up to you. Personally, I would go with how they signed or wrote their name. If they preferred “II” or always wrote “Jr.” then go with that. Thanks!

  6. Hi Ken,
    Good question, it’s ultimately up to you. “Gone home” makes sense if they were a Christian who is “at home” with Christ now. For other faith traditions or beliefs, some people prefer the image of their loved one on a journey so they might prefer “going home.” That’s my two cents, at least. Hope this helps!

  7. Thanks for these tips on how to find a good headstone inscription. I agree that you want to take your time with it in order to ensure it is right. My dad passed away recently, so we’ll have to consider their inscription first.

  8. Mom is being buried with Dad. Her married last name is on the front of the stone. Dads first name and dates are on the back. Mom remarried and hyphenated her last name. How would her name go in the back?

  9. Daniel Szczesniak

    Ultimately, it would be up to her (if still living) or the family. Would she (or you) prefer to have her last name be how it was for that first part of her life, with her married name? Or does being buried with Dad honor their relationship, while the newly hyphenated name also honors her relationship with her current husband? These are important considerations to think about. However, note that most married women have their name at the time of death on the headstone (their married name). You could think of it in a similar way… she was born with one name, had a new married name, and when she died it was with her hyphenated name. So with that line of reasoning perhaps the name she had at the time of death would be best. Again, it’s ultimately up to her and/or the family. Best wishes as you think through this!

  10. Sabrina Addams

    My grandma passed away last night from cancer, and we’re now trying to plan the memorial. I liked your advice to choose one person in your family to take care of the headstone and to stick with classic, serif fonts. I think my mom is going to take care of it, so I’ll pass on the rest of these tips to help her when she finds a headstone service.

  11. Does a junior always take a comma
    After the name, i.e.
    John Smith, Jr. Or
    John Smith Jr.

  12. I have a question, if I may.
    My brother was a state Supreme Court judge. Would it be proper to inscribe his headstone :
    HON. ROBERT L. ???

  13. Daniel Szczesniak

    Hi John,

    Yes, I’ve seen headstones like that for judges. I’m not sure if there is a specific protocol for state Supreme Court judges; you may want to try contacting his office because they would probably know. Hope this helps!

  14. Daniel Szczesniak

    Hi Ken,

    The classic style is yes, do include the comma. But I have seen inscriptions go both ways, and even without the period (i.e., John Smith Jr). These days, it really seems to be up to the family’s preference. But if you want to go the “traditional” route, then do include the comma. Thanks for asking!

  15. My dad passed away about 6 months ago followed by my mum just recently. My mum is buried on top of her mum but we have also put my dads ashes in with my mum. There is space for one person in the headstone but we would like to redo headstone with all 3 of them on it. Is there any way I can incorporate all 3 into one headstone?

  16. Daniel Szczesniak

    Hi Rayleen,

    Yes, I think you can. You would just need to discuss it with the headstone maker. I’ve certainly seen many couples together on a headstone along with children, so multiple people on a single headstone is certainly doable. You’d just need to ask about it at the cemetery.

  17. I would like to know is there a proper way to set up the front of a Memorial Stone with 2 last names and 3 first names for my beloved late husband of 17 yrs., myself and my boyfriend/finance (14 years)? No plans to remarry. If this was you what would you suggest? A small subtitle somewhere or none at all? Using 2 last names at top followed by all 3 full names OR 1 last @ top, 2 first names; then1 last name and 1 first? A suggestion made that I should have my maiden name in all capitals. I don’t care for the look of all caps on that. Have you ever seen this to be some lower case letters example (Geneology) when all other lettering on stone is in capitals? Thank you so much for your help.

  18. Daniel Szczesniak

    Hi Jill, thanks for asking your question! I think this would ultimately come down to a discussion with the headstone manufacturer. Since we don’t know the size of the headstone, or the space allotted for names, etc, it would be difficult for us to say. Ultimately, it will come down to 1) what will fit, and 2) what you want. But, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice.

    My first thought is that you should do each individual’s full name, with (space for) their birth and death dates below their name. Then you can do in smaller, subtitle-type lettering somewhere below (and I’m just guessing on the dates), Husband & Jill, Married 17 Wonderful Years (1987-2004). Then, below that, Boyfriend & Jill, Together X Wonderful Years (2006-XXXX). By providing the amount of time together, you indicate the significance of the relationship. And by including the years you were married/together, it tells the observer that these were separate and distinct relationships that you are honoring each in their own way.

    I hope this helps!

  19. Thank you for this help. A suggestion made that I should have my maiden name added in all capitals for Genealogy. Have you ever seen a maiden name to be some lower case letters ex. MARY A. (Jones) SMITH when all other lettering on stone is in capitals? Any rule of thumb or just personal visual choice?

  20. Daniel Szczesniak

    Hi Jill,

    I have not personally seen the lowercase maiden name like that. To go with tradition, you’d want it to be all caps or first-letter caps. But of course you are welcome to go with your own personal preference. Hope this helps!

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