11 Headstone Etiquette Tips

Headstone Etiquette
Check the rules and regulations of your local area and the cemetery you buy a plot in. Be respectful of those around you. Use the headstone as an opportunity to remember your loved one and memorialize who they were and how they lived their life.

1. Choosing Your Look

When picking a headstone, the three most important things to consider are your budget, the cemetery rules you must adhere to, and ensuring it reflects the loved one you want to memorialize.

There are many factors to choose from when picking a tombstone: headstone style, material, size, and shape are all things to think about. If possible, it is always best to talk with your family members about what they would like before they pass away.

If that is not possible, take a look at other grave markers and types of headstones, talk with the family and friends of the deceased, and ask the funeral director for their input. Try to find something that speaks to who your loved one was in life to make sure their final resting place adequately reflects how they lived.

If you are unsure, it is often best to lean towards classic designs and minimalism, as these will stand the test of time. More out-there options could go out of fashion quickly and leave you regretting your choice.

2. The Importance of Inscriptions

Epitaph inscription inspiration
Epitaph inscription inspiration

What you inscribe on a gravestone is just as important as the visual design. Headstone inscriptions are a great way to memorialize your loved one’s personality and an important historical method of record-keeping.

Firstly, you should make sure the following important information is present on the gravestone:

  • Date of Birth
  • Date of Death
  • Full Legal Name (if they have any nicknames they were known more commonly by, these can also be added – i.e., James ‘Jack’ Dawson)

Symbols can also be placed on the headstone and the facts of the person’s life. These are often used to reflect the deceased’s religious beliefs, such as a cross, a Star of David, or the star and crescent of Islam.

Many headstones also feature an epitaph – a small phrase or collection of words. Common examples of epitaphs include:

  • Always loved
  • Forever in our hearts
  • In loving memory of
  • Rest in peace

However, you don’t have to stick to these traditional options. You could choose a quote from their favorite poem, a Bible verse they adhered to, or a description of their trade or family roles. During end-of-life care, try to talk to your loved one about how they would like to be remembered on their tombstone.

3. Placement and Positioning

A gravestone should be placed at the head of the gravesite and centered in line with the coffin. Many gravestones face east for religious reasons, but this will likely be decided by the cemetery’s layout.

It is usually recommended to wait at least six months before erecting the headstone on the gravesite. This is to allow the grave to settle. Before starting arrangements, you should always check the regulations regarding placing a gravestone in your local area.

4. How to Care for a Headstone

Some parts of the gravesite care may be the cemetery’s responsibility, but the family who owns the plot is often in charge of its care.

The best equipment for cleaning a headstone is usually warm water and a soft brush or sponge – avoid anything too harsh, as this may scratch the stone. You can also purchase gravestone-specific sprays to prevent the build-up of algae and moss.

If you are unsure what cleaning materials are best for your individual markers, speak to the mason you purchased them from to get some advice.

5. How to Place Flowers Respectfully

Placing flowers and wreaths at a gravesite is a common way of showing respect; however, you must follow the cemetery’s regulations.

Cut flowers should be disposed of once they have died to maintain the area’s aesthetic value for those with adjoining headstones. Be sure not to leave any flowers wrapped in paper or plastic, as these can harm the local ecosystem or be blown away and cause littering.

6. Visiting the Gravesite

When visiting a gravesite, be sure to respect those around you. Remember that everyone mourns differently and that you will likely not be the only person visiting a loved one.

Visiting a family member’s gravesite can be a powerful experience – it can be moving, joyful, or tragic, depending on your relationship with the person who has died. It is important to allow yourself to feel what you need to and remember that a graveyard is a public place open to all.

Try to keep noise to a minimum, especially jovial talking or laughing, as these may upset others who have come to grieve. If you see anybody else at the graveyard, calm your voice and let them mourn peacefully.

There is no specific attire for visiting a grave – some like to dress formally, while others wear everyday gear. Just be sure your clothes suit a somber public place; bikinis or being shirtless should be avoided.

7. Photography

If you wish, taking photos by a gravesite is perfectly acceptable. However, do not get other mourners or headstones into the picture without their consent.

You may wish to take photos of the headstone to send to family members who are further away and cannot visit or to memorialize a special occasion (the anniversary of their passing, for instance).

8. Leaving Gifts

Leaving gifts or trinkets at the gravesite can be a lovely way to remember a loved one, but check with the cemetery first. Try to avoid anything that might be a safety hazard or could be harmful to the local ecosystem.

If you wish to donate in the name of someone who has passed, it is better to do this by donating to charity rather than leaving money directly at the gravesite.

9. Remembering a Loved One

a man holding headstone
A man holding headstone

Gravesites do not have to be places of grief. They can be used as a gathering point for family members to come and remember someone they have lost with fondness and joy. Feel free to share stories and memories and focus on your good times with them.

However, remember that others may still be grieving or may not wish to be disturbed. If there are other mourners around you, keep the noise to a minimum to be respectful.

10. Dealing with Vandalism or Damage

If your headstone has been vandalized or damaged, report it to the cemetery’s management. They will be able to help with the next steps.

If the headstone is becoming a safety hazard, you may need to have it removed or replaced as per the rules of the graveyard.

11. Accommodating Visitors with Disabilities

If you have visitors with disabilities, speak to the cemetery management beforehand. They may be able to place your gravesite in an easily accessible place or have policies in hand for helping those with mobility issues get to the gravesites.

You may also like: 12 Memorial Service Etiquette Tips

Do you put maiden or married name on gravestone?

You should put the person’s legal name at the time of passing, usually their married name. If you wish to preserve their maiden name, you can also put that on the headstone: i.e., Sam Greaves, nee White.

What is the difference between a headstone and a monument?

A headstone is a specific type of monument placed at the head of a gravesite. It is usually rectangular in shape, potentially with a rounded top.

Monuments can take many shapes and sizes – they can be simple flat markers placed in the ground or large crypts or mausoleums that house multiple family members.

How old should a headstone be before it can be removed?

A headstone should be replaced when it is dangerous or unfit for purpose. If it presents a risk of falling, it should be removed. You can also replace a headstone when the words become too weathered to read.

Jack Fairey

Jack is a writer based in west London, England. He is a keen traveler, and has a particular interest in the fascinating differences in etiquette across the world. When not writing, he can be found dreaming up his next trip to far off places.

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