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What to Write on a Headstone

A guide on how to choose an inscription for a loved one 

“It’s not set in stone.” We say it lightly, often half-jokingly because it’s true for most occasions and situations in life. Yet, one day we might just face the task of having to decide what message we want to have carved into stone, there for anyone to read and remember us or someone else for decades or even centuries to come. It might be our own headstone that we choose an inscription for or we are the one who decides what epitaph to put on a loved one’s gravestone.

If this happens to be where you are at just now, this blog post is for you. We provide you with practical tips and inspiration on what to write on a headstone, list things you might want to consider and general DOs and DON’Ts around gravestone inscriptions as well as some examples.

What is an epitaph?

The word epitaph has its origin in the Greek language (επιτάφιος). Taphos means tomb and in combination with epi it becomes “over a tomb”. It refers to a message, poem or brief inscription on a headstone or monument in commemoration of a dead person. 

Why a headstone is a great way to convey a loved one’s personality

A headstone is placed on a grave as a permanent reminder of the person who found their final resting place there. If you opt for one, it gives you the opportunity to commemorate your loved one’s life and unique personality through the inscription you choose. Therefore, you want it to reflect the affection, feelings and sentiments you and your family hold for the deceased. Another purpose of an epitaph is to comfort, console and maybe even bring healing to those who visit the grave and help them feel closer to the loved one who is resting there. The inscription on a headstone can be a final farewell message – either from you to the loved one who died or from the deceased to those they left behind.

Right after someone’s death, when the grief is most intense is an extremely difficult time. Depending on if your loved one pre-planned anything for their funeral or not, you might be facing a myriad of decisions that need to be made. And it is plenty hard enough to find the right words for the obituary and the eulogy during such an emotional time. Therefore, be kind and allow yourself to process the loss. There is no rush when it comes to choosing a headstone and the inscription you want to be carved into it. Most people take months and many even over a year before they commission a gravestone.

Tips to writing your message on a headstone

Take a walk

Once you feel ready to do so, go for walks across cemeteries and read the inscriptions on different headstones. Let yourself be inspired by unique messages, poems, verses or lyrics. Get a feel for what speaks to you and what doesn’t.

Consider your budget and space on the headstone

Headstones are expensive and the inscription is often charged by the letter. Get quotes from different masons after you got a rough idea of what you like. Unusual shapes and different sizes will also be a factor in how much space there is for an epitaph.

Check with the cemetery for potential restrictions

There might be rules and restrictions in place regarding headstone inscriptions. Some might only allow epitaphs from scripture or words that are in alignment with Christian doctrine and teachings. Check with the cemetery before you get too attached to an idea and ask for guidelines.

Less is more 

You don’t want the gravestone to look clattered. Aim for minimalistic, simple, dignified and tactful – classy is always in style. This goes for picking a font as well: avoid following trends and rather stick to serif fonts like Times Roman with either a mixture of upper and lowercase letters or all-caps.

Practical stuff

Some engravings require more maintenance than others. Some fonts need to be cut deeper or don’t suit smaller letter sizes or would not look sharp and clear on the particular stone you chose. If in doubt, ask the stonemason for advice.

Also: Always double and triple check the dates as well as the spelling of names.

What to write on a headstone

When you decide what to write on a headstone you want to cover the basics first:

  • Name
  • Date of birth and death (there’s a decision to be made about the format)
  • Relationship to those left behind (e.g. loving mother/brother/husband to …)
  • Optional: A framed photo of the deceased

Add an opening line like “Rest in peace”, “Dearly loved”, “In loving/cherished/treasured memory of” or “A life well lived.” Then, try and take the pressure off as best as you can. Of course, you will want to do your loved one, the life they lived and what they stood for justice when you choose the inscription for their headstone. Please remember, though, that someone’s personality and life and how you related to them are so much more complex than a few words or lines could ever convey. It’s time to come to terms that whatever epitaph you choose will probably only ever come close to capturing who your loved one was and what they meant to you.

Famous Quotes and Words of Wisdom

If someone has already put it into words perfectly, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. When you choose a famous quote these words might already have proven how powerful they are by profoundly impacting or inspiring thousands or even millions of people.

Here are some examples:

  • “I don’t think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that remains.” ― Anne Frank
  • “If I know what love is, it is because of you.” ― Herman Hesse
  • “Where there is love there is life.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
  • “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.” — Henri Mattise
  • “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” ― Kahlil Gibran
  • “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.” ― Helen Keller
  • “In my end is my beginning.” T S Eliot
  • “To hold, you must first open your hand. Let go.” ― Tao Te Ching

Poetry

Poetry can touch the soul. Especially if you and your family are not religious, would like something classy for your loved one’s headstone but are no wordsmiths yourselves, it might be worth looking into poems. Maybe your sentiments have been perfectly expressed by a famous verse-maker and his or her words have already passed the test of time.

Here are some examples:

  • “Miss me a little, but not for long, and not with your head bowed low, remember the love that once we shared, miss me, but let me go.” – Let Me Go, by Christina Rossetti
  • Our two souls therefore, which are one, though I must go, endure not yet a breach, but an expansion, like gold to airy thinness beat.” – A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, by John Donne
  • Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” – All’s Well That End’s Well, by Shakespear
  • Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” Hamlet, by Shakespear
  • “Farewell to thee! but not farewell To all my fondest thoughts of thee: Within my heart they still shall dwell; And they shall cheer and comfort me.” – Farewell, by Anne Brontë

Religious message

Passages from scripture are among the most popular epitaphs. If your loved one was a religious person, consider having their favourite Bible verse inscribed on their headstone.

Here are some examples:

  • “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” – 23rd Psalm 
  • “Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” – John 3:15
  • “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead yet shall he live.” – John 11:25
  • “Be thou faith unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” – Revelation 2:10
  • “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28
  • “And so we shall be forever with the Lord.” – Thessalonians 4:17
  • “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” – Proverbs 27:19

Personal Message or Quote

If your loved one wrote an inscription for their own headstone, always go with that. If not, they might have left behind letters or journals that are worth going through when looking for a personal and meaningful last message. Maybe your loved one coined a phrase themselves throughout their lifetime that would make for a beautiful epitaph or they managed a unique achievement.

A famous example is that of Mathematician Ludolph van Ceulen who was the first person to calculate pi to 35 decimal places and has it inscribed on his headstone – “3.14159265358979323846264338327950288”.

Lyrics

Your loved one might have been a singer or songwriter and you could have their own lyrics engraved on the headstone. Maybe they weren’t an artist themselves but simply loved music. You could look among their favourite songs if any of the lyrics might be suitable as an epitaph.

Here are some examples:

  • Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees

I’ll wait for you

Should I fall behind

Wait for me” – Bruce Springsteen

  • Never before has someone been more unforgettable.” ― Nat King Cole
  • I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will be as one.” ― John Lennon

Humour

Humour has been known on gravestones and can amuse or brighten the day of those who come to visit. Here are some examples:

  • “Go away – I’m asleep” – actress Joan Hackett
  • “Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.” – John Yeast
  • “Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite. (I told you I was sick)” – Headstone of English comedian Spike Milligan

If your loved one had a great sense of humour and loved to laugh, an epitaph that reflects that might be perfect for their headstone. Maybe they had an inside joke that only close family members will get. Be very careful, though, as what is funny today might not be understood that way several decades from now. In any case, you want to keep it tasteful as well as respectful.
One of the biggest gifts you can give your loved ones is preparing and planning for the end of your life so they are left with as few decisions and expenses as possible. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.