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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.” This article aims to give some headstone tips that will help families avoid tragic stories such as that one. We will also share some ideas for ways to avoid paying too much for the perfect headstone for your loved one.

What Makes For A Good Headstone

Few, even in acknowledging their own mortality, would particularly want to be the person buried in the grave Andy Rooney mentioned. A good cemetery 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?

Headstones capture the memory of a lost loved one, and preserve it for all timeWhen 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 memorial grave marker 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!”

Families are often concerned with what to say in the epitaph for a headstoneSome 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 cemetery 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 upright cemetery gravestone. “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.

For the living, some advice seen these days on a snarky t-shirt for sale in places that sell smart-alec merchandise is appropriate: Live Your Life So Your Family Doesn't Have to Lie On Your Headstone.

Now that we have helped you decide what your loved one's headstone should look like and say, we move to some tips on how to avoid paying more than necessary for this memorial piece.

Purchasing a cemetery headstone online is very simpleHow to Buy A Good Headstone

The most important thing to keep in mind about buying a headstone is that those who are helping you decide on your options are not necessarily working in your best interest. People who sell headstones, whether they work for cemeteries or specialized headstone retailers, are, in fact sales people. They have a vested interest in convincing you to spend more money than may be wise (or needed). Options they offer (such as expensive types of granite) may be frivolous and/or suitably replaced by less-expensive means. Often this can result in hundreds of dollars of added costs to the price of a headstone.

Next we will discuss a few of the hidden costs that are usually associated with buying a headstone.

Inquire About The Cemetery Headstone Setting Fee

First there is the matter of a “setting fee,” a charge that cemeteries require of all customers who wish to install a grave marker on their property. Unlike most of the other hidden costs we will discuss, this one is not optional – or at least it shouldn't be according to federal law. A standard setting fees is required of all customers whether they purchase a headstone from the cemetery or not. The fee is allowed by federal law to cover the cemetery's cost of accepting delivery of a marker, storing it (if need be) until installation is possible (many cemeteries do not install headstones during winter months) and, of course, the physical labor of installation. It is important to note that a cemetery may not reduce or eliminate this fee for customer who purchase grave markers from them. In otherwords, the setting fee may not be used as a negotiating tool to entice customers unfairly away from third party retailers who may be able to sell the same grave marker for less. Setting fees vary widely from cemetery to cemetery, but, they should usually be somewhere in the range from $50 - $500. Especially if the price is on the high end of that range, cemetery sales people may try not to mention it until a sales contract is all-but finalized. Customers will do well to ask about cemetery's setting fee very early in the process of ordering a headstone. This should even be done, ideally, before a grave plot is purchased.

Inquire About Headstone and Grave Stone Delivery Charges

Reputable companies will be prepared to answer any memorial headstone questionsDelivery charges are also an area in which customers should be wary. Many third party retail outlets will include delivery fees in the overall price of a headstone you order from them, but still others may not. Some customers have made the mistake of not considering delivery charges when comparing prices among retailers. This can result in a family ordering from a company that offers below average prices on headstones, but makes up for the loss by adding surcharges to the price of delivery. This misleading practice can be surmounted by simply inquiring about whether delivery price is included in the price quoted for a headstone. This same concept applies to sales taxes. In many cases, sales taxes can be avoided if one is purchasing via internet from a state in which he does not reside. Some retailers – particularly internet sites – offer to pay the sales tax charge for all customers, even those who reside int heir state. Others do not. When the price of a headstone can cost $1,500 or more, an 8 – 10 percent charge for sales tax can make a significant impact on the final price that a family pays. So sales tax is definitely worth inquiring about from the very beginning of working with a cemetery or retailer.

Accessories, Additional Engraving, Specialized Granite

While it is important that a family get the headstone that is desires and needs to memorialize a loved one perfectly, it's also important that charges for add-ons to the headstone not exceed budgeted expectations. Add ons that can sometimes be budget-busters (and are often not discouraged by sales people) are special accessories, additional engraving, and specialized granite. Below we have a brief discussion of each of these.

A wide variety of accessories are available on most headstones that can raise the price of the final product significantly. These accessories do have their value, but customers should be very certain that they actualy want and need these products before purchasing them. Because the accessories available change very regularly – with new products coming available every year – we will limit this current discussion to just one of the more common accessories: bronze vases. In some cases, these vases are included in the price quoted for a headstone, but retailer will be willing to offer a lower price if a customer says he or she does not want or need the vases. This lower price will not always be offered without first asking, so, it is important for a customer to ask himself if he or she wants a bronze vase even before approaching a sales person. Not ordering a bronze vase can usually lower the cost of a headstone extensively.

Most headstone retailers offer at least a few letters of engraving as part of the overall price of a headstone. Customers are encouraged to stay within that number except in rare cases. If that means shortening an epitaph, it is worth considering. Often the price of just one or two extra words can add more than $100 to a headstone's price. In the big scheme of things, that may not sound like much for a piece that will be carrying a loved one's memories through the ages. And it may very well be a wise purchase. But customers would do well to consider all other (shorter) options very carefully, nevertheless, before deciding upon an option that will require extra engraving at an extra cost.

Headstones and Grave Markers will carry on our legacy into tomorrowGranite options for a headstone can sometimes add hundreds of dollars to the price of a grave marker. Customers should be wary of cemeteries that require all grave markers to be manufactured with special colors or styles of granite that cost much more than others. While cemeteries are well within their right to do that, some consumer activists will suggest that forcing grieving families to spend more than necessary so that a cemetery can maintain a certain uniform look is not fair and is a reason to do business with another cemetery. While no one but the family in question should dare to make a final decision on this matter for a family, the wise consumer would do well to fully consider this question before hiring a cemetery or buying a headstone from its retail division.

How families can protect themselves from pushy sales people

Cemeteries that are run in conjunction with funeral homes are required by federal law to follow guidelines set up by the funeral rule to help protect consumers. The highlight of these rules is that prices and services much be spelled out very clearly and simply on a document called a General Price List that is given to all consumers relatively immediately upon their first visit to the business. Consumers should be able to use this price list to quickly determine for themselves what the overall cost of their headstone would be, when all options, accessories have been added along with any setting fees, taxes, and delivery charges. And, further, consumers should be able to easily compare the final price to what might be available from other establishments nearby also offering headstones.

The general idea behind the General Price List is to empower consumers with the ability and know-how to negotiate good prices for the memorial goods they need and want without concern for reducing the memorial dignity of the deceased. We hope this article has helped with that same goal.

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