How is a Headstone Made
Installing a Headstone
Caring For Your Headstone
Environmentally Friendly Headstones
Ideas for Selecting the Right Headstone
How a Headstone Helps Grief
Designing a Headstone
Guidance, Tips and Help for Headstones and Grave Marker Questions
Some years ago, Andy Rooney, in one of his commentaries on 60 Minutes, shared his observations about what makes for a good headstone. One headstone for example had mold growing on it, because it belonged to someone who must have died years ago. “Poor fellow,” he said, “no one will ever know who he was.”
Few, even in acknowledging their own mortality, would particularly want to be that person. A good headstone is not only one that is durable enough to survive the elements; it should also give passersby a feel for who this person was. Did they live a long life? Or was their life cut tragically short? What virtues was this person endowed with, such as, faith, hope, love, patience, kindness, or humility?
When one sees a large headstone, one often wonders, did that person stand out large in life as well? Perhaps they were the type of person who always told the funniest stories, slapping everyone on the back as they spoke, and defied all social graces, completely dominating every conversation they were a part of? Or did they just have a kind of presence about them that made them a natural leader, who gave others a sense that they knew what they were talking about, simply by being who they were?
By contrast, when one see a smaller more petite headstone, the thought arises: were they a quiet, and very reserved person, who “just hated to be a bother.” Could you be in the room with them alone for twenty minutes and be startled to learn that there was another person in there? Or was it perhaps a person of modest means, who may have struggled financially through life? For that matter, was this the only headstone their family could afford after some tragedy?
Words of wisdom found on a headstone can often be informative as well, as a view into the person’s soul. Here are some examples: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” is the famous epitaph on the grave of poet John Keats. The legendary William Shakespeare's grave marker is reported to have the following beautifully crafted lines of wit: Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear/to dig the dust enclosed here/Blest be the man that spares these stones/and cursed be he that moves my bones.” And, the headstone marking the grave of American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly familiar to fans of his masterpiece novel The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
While it might look a little odd if you quoted a headstone as words of advice to a friend, they are a good way to tell a visitor to the cemetery about the kind of person your loved one was.
A conundrum some might face is the possibility that a family member was not a particularly pleasant person? What if their passing secretly brings a bit of relief? What should their headstone say, for example, if they seemed to think more highly of themselves than everyone else seemed to think of them? If tact is the goal, then perhaps this one will suffice.
“At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them” Oh boy, will we ever! For that matter, it may be interesting when one considers the realm of soap operas, for all of the bitterness that takes place in their plots, that no producer ever had the bright idea when they killed off a character to have enemy family members write on the headstone, “He was a real so-and-so!”
Some families decide to have a family plot, filled with loved ones who have gone on before. This is presumably so that their loved one who recently passed will not have a lonely headstone all by itself in the cemetery. Others, who believe they will pass away sometime in the near future, will actually purchase their headstone beforehand, so that they can personally supervise what will be on it.
Many times a headstone tells cemetery visitors nothing about the person at all, except for their name, when they were born, and when they died. This is perhaps a sad commentary on their life. Perhaps they worked hard for years to be the best at what they did, or to overcome great personal struggles in their own life, only to wind up with a headstone with a name, and dates. Or perhaps it is not.
“Do not do good works so that those around you will appreciate them,” said Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, “Because they will die, and then their children will die, and their children will die, and who will be left to remember your good deed.” “Do them,” he said, “because they are right.” One wonders if his headstone in turn proclaimed his good works for humanity.
A headstone can also provide a window into important historical trends. The headstones in the cemetery of Mission San Francisco de Asis, popularly known as Mission Dolores, in San Francisco, California are an example of this. In addition to many Spanish surnames, names like “O’Reilly”, “O’Casey”, and “McInnis”, can also be found, reflecting the affordability of Irish labor in the early 19th century, as well as the scarcity by that point of Indian labor in Northern California.
Even looking at a headstone that does not reflect a historical trend, there is almost a peace surrounding the ones that have been there for a century or longer. Everyone who was left to grieve them has more than likely passed themselves. Some websites have a look at celebrity headstones, which can be especially telling. “We live to love you more each day,” proclaims Jayne Mansfield’s headstone.
“The Best is yet to come,” says Frank Sinatra’s headstone. “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life,” says John Wayne’s headstone, “it comes into us at midnight very clear, it’s perfect when it arrives, and it puts itself in our hands.” “It hopes,” the headstone says, “we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
Perhaps there is a lesson in headstone compliments: that they should be shared with the person while they are still alive. It must be terribly tragic for those who never find the right opportunity to do so while the person is still living.