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Guide to Choosing the Perfect Headstone for a Grave

Wedding bands, a family home, a tattoo – if that’s your thing – and a headstone that will mark the grave of someone you loved: Those four investments are among the most meaningful and long-lasting ones we will ever make in life. And rarely will we be as aware of buying something that is meant to last than when we choose a headstone. We have created this guide to help you with the things you need to consider when making this investment and hope, it’ll make the process as easy for you as it possibly can be.

What is the difference between a headstone and a gravestone or tombstone?

Nowadays, the words “headstone”, “gravestone” and “tombstone” are used interchangeably by most people. In the past, they referred to three different things.

Originally (around 1400), a headstone was the cornerstone of a house that held information about the building like start and end dates of construction. The meaning evolved over the years: A headstone is now the main way of marking a grave. It is an upright stone at the head end of a grave that has the name as well as the date of birth and date of death of the person who is buried there inscribed. It may furthermore feature an epitaph or small photo of the deceased. Headstones are the most common form of a memorial on cemeteries.

A gravestone or tombstone is another type of memorial marker. The word refers to a large stone slab that covers a grave horizontally in its entirety. It can be inscribed just like a headstone to identify the person who is buried in the ground. While gravestone is the oldest word out of the three of them – it dates back to the 12th century – and never changed its meaning, the word “tombstone” initially referred to the lid of a stone coffin.

Headstones only became common in cemeteries and churchyards in the mid-1600s. Grave markers, usually placed above a burial ground near a home, date back as far as 3000 BC. 

Choosing the right headstone – step by step:

Designing and choosing a headstone involves a lot of different considerations and decisions. We will take you through the process step by step:

  1. Get inspiration: Familiarise yourself with different headstone designs and materials. One way to do this is by taking a walk across one or even several cemeteries and getting a feel for what type of headstone speaks most to you or seems suited best for what you have in mind to commemorate your loved one. Take photos of the headstones you like best, so you can show them to the supplier of your choice. To get a better understanding of the different materials, their pros and cons, we recommend continuing to read this blog post.
  2. Get familiar with the cemetery’s rules and regulations: Every cemetery has its own rules, regulations and restrictions regarding what type of headstones are allowed and which aren’t. And it depends on the cemetery how strict or specific these rules are. In the UK, you can find some of this information online when you look on the local Burial Authority’s website. Your funeral director should usually also be able to provide some guidance or at least advise you on whom to contact to find out more.
  3. Set a budget: We all wish that money didn’t matter when it comes to giving our loved ones the special send-off they deserve or choosing a headstone to commemorate them for decades if not hundreds of years to come. The reality is, however, that only very few people are rich enough to not have to set a budget. How much money you have available for buying a gravestone will impact your choice of material, the size, the design, the finish, and the length of the inscription. Therefore it’s important to set the budget right at the start and stick to it.
  4. Select the inscription and epitaph: It is, of course, the combination of shape, material, colour, finish and inscription that makes a headstone unique. It is usually the latter, though, that allows you to capture and reflect the personality of the deceased the best. A lot of thought goes into those last words, their meaning and the message they provide to those who come to the grave and read them. It only makes sense to select the inscription and epitaph for the headstone first as not every material can be carved equally well and the size and shape of the gravestone might depend on the message you want to fit on it, too. Our guide to “What to write on a headstone” not only covers the basics but also contains tips as well as examples.
  5. Choose the type of grave marker: There are three main headstone type categories – kerbed (this is a full-length grave marker that is often used in combination with an upright headstone and allows for the planting of flowers), upright headstone (usually fixed to the ground with a concrete base, it measures roughly 45 inches tall and is the most traditional option), and flat headstone (either laid at a slight angle or completely flat; comes in various sizes and shapes). Which type of grave marker you choose will depend on your taste as well as your budget. To learn more about headstone pricing, please scroll to the FAQ section below.
  6. Choose the material of the headstone: When it comes to choosing the material of the headstone two of the most common question is what lasts longest. Granite is one of your cheapest and at the same time, most durable options. It is available in many different colours and requires very little maintenance which keeps the long-term costs low. The downside of granite is that it is very difficult to carve which limits design options and makes longer inscriptions and epitaphs more expensive. Due to its many pros, granite is the most popular choice for headstones. Marble is chosen for aesthetic reasons as it features unique blue and grey veins, is smooth and boasts a fantastic finish. As marble is a very soft stone and not all too durable, some cemeteries don’t allow headstones of this material. Limestone is not only popular but also a very traditional option. It changes its looks over time as the stone is impacted by the weather and climate. Due to its softness, limestone is easily carved. On the downside, it is also easily broken down by plants. Headstones can also be made from bronze (extremely durable, but also expensive), stainless steel (hardy material, very modern option) or slate (easy to carve but not very durable).
  7. Choose a headstone design: One of the most traditional headstone designs is cross-shaped. However, if the person who died wasn’t religious, you might rather want to go for a half-ogee, heart-shaped, book-shaped, tear-shaped or serpentine headstone design. Always check with the cemetery which signs are appropriate and allowed.
  8. Select the finish for the headstone: For a smooth and shiny headstone, you would choose a polished finish. If this effect is only important to you in the inscription area, you can select a part-polished, part-blasted/sanded/rubbed/sawn finish. If you are looking for a smooth, non-reflective stone, you want a honed finish (sawn or eggshell). This can also be used for the sides of the headstone while the inscription area gets a polished finish. If you want the headstone to blend in with others on a more traditional cemetery or just like a more natural look, you can opt for a pitched finish. This means that the stone is hand-chiselled – often around the edges – to give it a rough and aged look. Be aware that not all finishes are available on all materials. It’s best to discuss this with the stonemason of your choice.
  9. Choose a headstone supplier: Expertise will have its price. But you can find professionalism and quality with an online supplier as well – and save some money. It helps to ask around among family, friends and acquaintances if anyone can recommend a trusted headstone supplier. If not, it’s best to read customer reviews and have a chat on the phone to see if the person on the other end gets your vision. To find and support a local headstone supplier, you can browse through the online directory of the British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons (BRAMM). Not all, but some cemeteries will insist on the person installing the headstone to have a BRAMM ‘fixer licence.’
  10. Ask for a draft: A professional headstone supplier will be able to send you a computer-rendered draft of what the finished product will look like. If the supplier doesn’t offer this, you should ask if it is available. When making a meaningful and long-lasting investment like this, you want to ensure that the headstone looks exactly like agreed upon and that there aren’t any errors in the inscription.

Frequently asked questions about headstones in the UK:

Who can put a headstone on a grave?

Only the person who is named on the deed (a legal document) and has the ownership of the grave plot can have a headstone installed. 

How much does a headstone cost?

According to the Royal London National Funeral Cost Index Report from 2017, British people spent an average of £916 on a headstone or similar memorial. The costs depend on the size and type of the headstone as well as the length of inscription and detail in the design. Kerbed memorial headstones are more expensive than upright headstones. The least expensive options are usually flat or slanted headstones. The latter can start at £350-400. An upright headstone will cost you at least £800-1200. Full kerb set arrangements often start at £2000-4000 and can go up to £10,000 or more. This is all on top of the funeral costs and the costs for the grave plot.

It is one of the most generous and helpful gifts to your family to have the basic costs for your final goodbye guaranteed and covered by a funeral plan. Depending on the funeral plan you choose, different key features will be included. Usually, it covers the two most essential funeral expenses: The cremation or burial fees and the services of a funeral director. Safe Hands do not include a gravestone or personal touches like flowers or the venue for the wake in any of our funeral plans. If you would like to learn more about the different funeral plan options at Safe Hands, please have a look at the “Our Funeral Plans” page or get in touch directly for more info or if you have any questions.

How can I save money when buying a headstone for a grave?

There are several ways to save money when buying a headstone. First and foremost, you have control over the price through the choices you make regarding the material, shape and size as well as the length of the inscription. Another way to save money is to buy your headstone online. Make sure to compare suppliers and carefully read their reviews.

How long do I wait after the funeral before I have a headstone installed?

You will have to wait for a minimum of 6 months – depending on weather and climate – to allow the ground to settle. The cemetery will prohibit an earlier installation of a headstone or memorial marker to protect the grave from subsidence. Some people choose to wait a whole year before they have a headstone put on their loved one’s grave. This can involve a small ceremony.

How long does it take to have a headstone made?

It can take between 3-4 weeks up to several months to have a headstone made – depending on the size, design and complexity of detail that you requested.

Why are headstones facing East?

Christians identify Jesus Christ with the rising sun. Their headstones are facing East to signify his resurrection and in expectation of his second coming. According to this blog post here, the origins of East facing headstones may lay in paganism, though.

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