Things to write on a gravestone

Updated February 21, 2017

Eventually, almost everyone has to participate in a decision about what to put on a gravestone for a relative or beloved friend. During the Victorian Era until the turn of the 20th century, flowery prose predominated with snippets from poetry and scripture arranged on gravestones. World War I brought a less romantic view of death and today, memorial prose is purely a matter of the family's preference.

The Basics

The name of the deceased in its complete form, perhaps with a familiar name inserted in quotation marks, is the most common entry on a grave marker. Occasionally, initials are substituted for first and middle names if the marker is a "companion" stone (associated with an adjacent memorial stone). Children's markers are frequently labelled with a diminutive of the name or simply "infant" and "son" or "daughter" if the child died before naming. The year of passing is always marked on the stone. Frequently the birth year is added and sometimes day and month are added to these notations. Since future generations may use the memorial stone for reference in establishing genealogies, accuracy is essential in this identification information. Other basic information that may be included on a shared stone is the relation of the deceased to other occupants ("wife", "father", "sister") of the plot.

Important Add-Ons

Military service is generally noted on a memorial stone; free headstones and markers are available to qualified veterans from the Veterans Administration (see Resource 2). Military information may be as simple as branch of service or may include rank, assignment or war service. Other add-ons may include public service, elected office or service club membership. Fraternal connections such as Masons, Eastern Star or Greek affiliations are generally noted with symbols of membership. Terms of endearment ("Beloved Husband", "Dear Mother") are also traditional add-on information. Although many Victorian Era stones are crowded with such endearments, their use is a matter of preference rather than form on today's less ornate stones.

Prose and Poetry

"Remember man, as you walk by, As you are now, so once was I, As I am now, so shall you be, Remember this and follow me."

This cautionary rhyme on an English tombstone almost invites the irreverent reply etched below it:

"To follow you I'll not consent, Until I know which way you went." (See Resource 3)

Prose, often from the Bible or other holy book, and poetry sometimes adorn memorial stones as epitaphs to try to sum up the spirit of the deceased. Many families choose familiar, short phrases from the books of Psalms and Proverbs like "A good wife who can find? She is more precious than jewels" (Proverbs 31:10). Other epitaphs use passages from the Gospels like "Where I am going you cannot follow me now" (John 13:36). A favourite poem, song or piece of literature of the deceased may provide an epitaph. Occasionally, a family adds a thought or poem of their own composition. The challenge when adding an epitaph is to choose an appropriate phrase that fits on the stone. It is wise to remember that custom changes; several historical periods have seen humour used in epitaphs but tasteless humour is out of place in a public cemetery in deference to other mourners. The simplest phrase is usually the one that will most accurately convey to future generations the feelings of those who loved the deceased.

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About the Author

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.