A Quick Overview of Headstone Etiquette & Manners


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A headstone is a plaque or monument that stands at the head of a gravesite. It has the name and important information of the person who died, and it might also have an epitaph to honor their memory. Most people are familiar with headstones, but they aren’t something you buy every day, leading to a lot of gaps in understanding when it comes to expectations. 

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There is an etiquette and specific manners to headstones that many people might not realize. However, knowing what to expect in this process is the best way to be prepared. Whether you’re planning your own end-of-life wishes or choosing a headstone for a loved one, know what to expect by reading this overview of headstone etiquette and manners. 

Who’s Responsible for Choosing and Buying a Headstone?

One of the biggest conflicts that can come from planning a funeral is deciding who pays for what. When the deceased individual doesn’t have a large estate or didn’t plan their burial arrangements in advance, it isn’t always clear who chooses or pays for the headstone. Knowing a few things about headstone etiquette simplifies this process.

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Who pays for the headstone?

First and foremost, the estate pays for the headstone. The cost of this monument comes directly from the estate unless indicated otherwise. Then, the remaining funds in the deceased’s estate go to beneficiaries (or heirs). 

However, some family members would rather pay for the headstone themselves. This is perfectly acceptable, though the headstone cost can be high. In this case, whoever orders the headstone is the one who pays for it. If the deceased person does not have enough funds in their estate, the family needs to agree on how to pay for these expenses. The responsibility typically falls upon the spouse and the children, though this isn’t always the case. 

Who chooses the headstone?

There are many things to consider when deciding who chooses the headstone. First, the deceased person might have laid out specific requests for their headstone in the will or other end-of-life plans. This would indicate the type of headstone that’s to be used as well as any tombstone quotes or extras. 

However, many people fail to make their end-of-life wishes clear to their loved ones before they pass. In this situation, the responsibility again falls to the spouse or children. If these individuals are no longer living or are unable to make this choice, it goes to the next-of-kin. Ultimately, the family decides what headstone pays the best tribute to their loved one’s life. 

What’s the Etiquette Around Headstone Inscriptions?

If you’ve ever taken a stroll through a graveyard, you might have noticed some similarities between headstone inscriptions. The way information is presented on headstones follows a specific etiquette, and there’s an order that should be followed. While you’re certainly allowed to have some fun with this or honor your loved one’s wishes, consider these points. 

Order of names on gravestones

As mentioned above, the order on the gravestone is important. In general, the lines follow this setup:

  • Name
  • Dates
  • Epitaph

Before these lines, there might be a phrase like “At Rest” or “In Loving Memory.” If you plan to include the names of any pre-deceased family, it would be after the name of the buried individual. For example, “In Loving Memory of Susan Smith, daughter of Megan and John Smith.” 

Why follow this order? It provides a much-needed structure to the headstone and makes it easy to locate individual markers later on. A lot of record-keeping goes into maintaining accurate accounts of these gravestones, so sticking to the correct order is a way to ensure this legacy lives on. 

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Simple is best

There’s a lot of myths about how to best express your loved one’s personality and life in their headstone. How do you sum up a lifetime of feelings and memories in a small space? To remedy this, many families try to put as much information as possible. While this might seem like a good move at first glance, less really is more. 

Minimalism is timeless and never goes out of style. If you keep things short and sweet, you’ll never have to worry about it feeling overwhelming or being too much. While there are endless options for personalizing your headstone decorations, avoid the temptation to do too much at once. 

Use humor wisely

Humor can either improve a headstone or fall terribly flat. If the deceased had an exceptional sense of humor, including a pun or other reference to their wit could be a great way to honor their memory. However, remember that cultures and tastes change. The written word is a tricky thing, and what might be funny today isn’t guaranteed to be funny in the future. 

Unless you’re certain you can capture the wit of your loved one in a way that’s timeless and unchanging, skip it altogether. There are other effective ways to honor their sense of humor without the long-term risk of engraving it on a stone. 

Focus on the opening line

Because clutter gets in the way, focus on making sure the headstone has a strong opening line. While most people opt for the classic “In Loving Memory,” you don’t have to limit yourself to this phrase. Other options include:

  • In Memoriam
  • Happy Memories Of
  • Here Lies
  • In Honored Memory Of
  • A Well-Lived Life
  • At Rest
  • Gone Too Soon
  • In Fondest Memories Of 

Any of these make a great pick, but this is also an opportunity to be creative. However, remember that this stone should last years and years. Will the phrase you pick stand the test of time?

What are the Rules for Headstone Decorations?

Finally, there are some rules for headstone decorations. Like with inscriptions, less really is more. Today, there are a number of decorations you can choose from to spruce up your loved one’s grave. This is a great alternative to a complex inscription, and it’s something you can change regularly. 

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What decorations are allowed?

Most cemeteries have their own list of approved decorations. These depend on the specific location, but most cemeteries allow these decorations:

  • Flowers (fake and real)
  • Wreaths
  • Small flags
  • WIne chimes
  • Crosses or religious status
  • Grave blankets
  • Notes
  • Photos

Be sure to consider the grave flowers etiquette as well as other etiquette points depending on what you choose. These things are inexpensive, and they’re a great reason to visit your loved one’s grave to maintain the space in honor of your loved one. 

What decorations are not usually allowed?

Again, the rules differ for each cemetery. What each location does or doesn’t allow usually depends on the space, climate, and so on. Here are the types of decorations that are typically not allowed on gravestones:

  • Free-standing vases or other breakable glass
  • Light-up decorations
  • Large flags
  • Candles (left unattended)
  • Fencing or borders
  • Decorations stuck into the ground
  • Stuffed animals

The reason most of these aren’t allowed is because they’re either difficult to maintain or interfere with the cemetery’s lawn care. Some might also prove to be a safety hazard. While most of these are fine if you get approval, be sure to check with your specific cemetery before bringing any of the above decorations. 

Preparing a Loved One’s Headstone

Your loved one’s headstone is an opportunity to share their legacy with the world. Your inscription and decorations are a way to express who they were and how their family remembers them. That being said, there are several things to keep in mind before you decide on the right headstone

In a perfect world, you’ll always know your loved one’s specific wishes before they pass. Because that’s not always possible, you’ll have to trust your own judgment and do the best you can. Most importantly, remember that there are endless ways to remember your deceased loved one. Your headstone is one of those ways, but it’s only one side of the story. 

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