11 Critical Tips For Buying a Gravestone

When asked what he would like to have on his gravestone, W. C. Fields replied, “ All things considered, I would rather be in Philadelphia.”

We have put together our thoughts and insights into helping you save money and time when the day comes to purchase a gravestone or headstone for your loved one. Below are 11 critical tips to help you! We would love to hear your comments and thoughts!


Have you ever walked around a cemetery? Sometimes, the gravestones or headstones share clever epitaphs, like W. C Fields. In a Vancouver cemetery, someone found a stone with only OhNo on it. One stone in Hartscombe England read, “Owen Moore, gone away owin’ more than he could pay. Other times, the sayings are very somber, sometimes sharing life stories and tragedies. My mother and I found many somber engravings on the tombstones in a small graveyard in Baltimore, where Edgar Allen Poe is buried.

On that spring day spent with my mother, wandering about the cemetery, we saw old crumbling gravestones, leaning into the earth, resting next to angels with arms outstretched and wings chipped. Each looked out over wild flowers and weeds that almost hid small, nondescript flat grave markers as well as the crumbled headstones that once stood tall but now lay in pieces on old graves. Life stories were chiseled into many of the markers: Mary Jones died of the flu; Edward Billings farmed and had 3 wives, and baby Julia Mares was taken too young after falling into the well.

My mother and I enjoyed our time walking among the gravestones, reading the stories they shared, remarking about the ages of some of the stones and realizing the gratitude we felt for being able to take a trip back in time to learn more about those who went before us. Of course, we shared a lovely cheese and wine snack on our blanket spread in front of Edgar Allen Poe’s gravestone: “Quote the raven, nevermore.”

The History of Gravestones

The history of the term gravestone is interesting. It comes from the Jewish custom of putting stones at the head of a grave as a way to honor the dead. Ironically, the story goes that the tradition is in response to guilt a man felt for writing a note to help solve a crime on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. As a way to atone for his sin, he asked that upon his death his grave be stoned. Hence, as the story goes, comes the tradition of putting stones on graves.

A Cemetery of Headstones in the Snow

Another story shares that rocks, stones or wood were placed on graves to keep the dead from rising. Whatever was placed on the grave usually had the person’s name, age and year of death scratched on it somewhere.

Whatever the truth, gravestones are part of the end of life ritual, marking the place where our loved one lies, a forever reminder that he or she passed this way and left his or her mark.

When it comes time for you to choose a headstone, you will have many questions to ask, research to do and decisions to make. A marker is personal, and it is for the family, a concrete statement to those who come to visit or just walk by that this person was here.

“The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…” Irving Berlin

Gravestones exist in various shapes, sizes, prices and materials. Why you can even get one especially made in a one of a kind design that represents your loved one or family. The following provides information on the types of gravestones available, what materials they can be made of, the price ranges of stones and some tips on how to choose the one that best meets your needs.

1. Types of Gravestones

Flat Markers

Gravestones can be Flat Markers, which means they are lawn-level. They are made mostly granite or bronze. However, if you are interested in something different than the basic color, then granite is the best option because it comes in a variety of colors. Flat markers are small and economic, costing between $250.00 and $350.00.

They lay flush to the ground or they can be raised a few inches. Though there is a basic, one color flat maker, it can have textured features, finishes, symbols, designs or images, based on your personal needs.

Upright Headstone

An upright headstone is a tall two-piece structure made of a vertical stone on top of a base stone at the bottom. These types of gravestones are most common.

In 1957, we chose an upright gravestone for our family grave plot. The stone has our family name on it as well as a rosary. My father loved to pray the rosary, so the choice to have it on the headstone was very personal. It is black granite, very simple but very strong. On top of his grave is a flat marker, with his name on it and the year of birth and the year of death.

It is interesting to note that families, who over the years chose the upright headstone, are now having the names of other family members engraved on the back side of the markers, which is usually jut plain. Since most families have scattered all over the country and world, a common burial plot is almost antiquated. Therefore, as a reaction to this reality, families have decided that it is nice to have at least one place where all the names of a family will remain to say we were here.

My two sisters and my mother were cremated. One lived in Portland, Oregon, one in the Cayman Islands and one in Washington, D.C.; none were going to be buried in the family plot back in Wisconsin. However, their names are engraved on the back of our family headstone, and when my sister and I die, our names will be added.

Slant Marker

A marker has a wide base that angles up at a 45 degrees to a tapered top. It resembles the upright stone, but is it thicker and shorter.

Bevel Marker

Also called a pillow marker, the bevel is like a slant marker but the angle is not as steep. The back of the marker is 2 to 4 inches higher than the front of the marker.

Ledger Marker

The ledger is a thick stone that covers the whole grave. It can be made of granite, marble or sandstone, and it can be used with other memorial monuments.

Standard, Domed Shoulder and Gothic Tablets

Standard tablets are simple rectangular stones that can be set directly into the ground or on a foundation. The Domed Tablet has a rounded top, the shoulder tablet has an angled top and the gothic tablet has ornamental curves and angles.


An Obelisk gravestone is a tall, column monument that has its tradition in Egypt. Mounted on four sided square pedestals, it has a pointed top and is usually decorated with another structure like a pyramid or statue. To say the least, this type of gravestone has a strong presence as it looms over the grave.

“I honored the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave.” Manfred von Richthofen

2. How to Buy a Headstone

Cemeteries have regulations and guidelines, so you need to know what the particular cemetery you have chosen allows and requires. For instance, some cemeteries/memorial parks only allow grave markers in granite or bronze. Some may only allow a flat marker. You need to know this before you start your research for a headstone.

Maybe, the cemetery, in a desire to show uniformity, will regulate the size of headstones. This might be a be stressful for those who want to be sure the stone is individual to the person it commemorates. Here is where engraving comes into play. You can put whatever you want on the headstone in honor of the person who died.

The next consideration is the budget. What can you afford? It is always best to comparison shop to be sure you are getting the best price. Once you have set that, then you can begin to research for a grave marker that meets your needs and expectations while staying within the budget.

Finally, you have to decide upon the material of the stone as well as the inscription.

Headstones can be very personal or very general, depending on your needs. As I said before, my father’s headstone is very simple, but very strong, just as he was.

3. Type of Material

Headstones can be made of marble, granite, slate, sandstone, fieldstone, bronze or a variety of other similar materials. Sandstone does not hold up as well as the other materials, so if it is durability you want, with the stone lasting through generations, it is not the best choice.

People buying headstones usually choose granite or bronze because they are the most durable and can withstand extreme weather conditions. They are also easy to maintain.

Granite, sandstone and slate stones come in a variety of colors. And, marble has a variety also. The most aesthetic stone is the marble because of the variety of patterns that marbling creates in the stone. Often a certain color is more expensive than another one, so be sure to take note of this.

4. Engraving

It is important to remember that engraving can fade over time. The engravings in sandstone fade more quickly than the engravings in granite. Though sandstone can last for decades, granite can last for generations. In the older cemeteries the tall, faded, graying headstones are usually made of sandstone and the inscriptions are almost gone. This does not mean that other engraved headstones will not fade. The acid in rainwater is one culprit that affects engravings.

Prices for engraving can run anywhere from $200.00 to over $1,000.00. You can budget to spend at least $20.00 per letter. Therefore, a simple, upright headstone that cost $700.00 can end up costing over $2,000.00 if you decide to go for engraving beyond the name and dates of the person who died.

5. One or Two Headstones

If you want a headstone solely for the body of the person being buried, your choice will be much different than if you want a headstone for a family, a headstone for just your parents, or a headstone for your partner and eventually yourself. You may also want a family headstone and an individual marker over each grave.

As I shared before, my father’s headstone has the family name and stands as the marker for our family grave plots. His grave is marked with a flat marker with his name, date of birth and date of death. The initial design was for each new grave to have its own flat marker. However, we chose to have names engraved on the family tombstone rather than place a flat marker on any new grave, should there be one.

When deciding upon the symbols or designs for the tombstone, it is best to do a little research so you are sure you know the meaning of the symbol or design. Remember, it is your choice as to how many stones will be placed, and what is put on the stone. Whatever you choose, from funny to spiritual, it reflects your needs to share something about the person who died.

6. Size and Shape

The cemetery may regulate the size of the headstone; however, the shape is up to you. Some of the shape options follow:

  • Upright monuments: the most common type of marker
  • Tablet: Not as thick as the upright, usually does not have a base upon which they sit
  • Plaque: usually a rectangle, a bit raised from the earth, but lying parallel to the earth, not upright.
  • Pedestal with a surmount: a tombstone with something set on top of it. For example, on a very basic gravestones a cross could be mounted on the top.
  • Nameplate: a small, often bronze, rectangle that is stuck into the ground to identify the grave.
  • Sculptured Cross
  • Sculptured Angels

Two Gravestones with One Tilting To the Side

You can also choose a flat headstone, which requires less maintenance than other options. The flat marker on my father’s grave is just a stone in the ground, and it has been mowed over, mowed around, rained on, hailed on and it still looks like when it was put into the ground. The upright tombstone has shifted so it stands slanted to one side. It has marks from weather and mowers, and the color has faded. It is no longer the sharp, dark black it was in 1957.

If your loved one has been cremated, you can choose a cremation headstone that holds ashes. A grave basket that holds ashes is also an option. Not all family members chose the same method for the disposal of their bodies; therefore, a headstone with a place for ashes is a great idea.

7. Designing a Headstone

If you want a headstone to be of a unique design, you will need to find a cemetery that had no regulations or guidelines concerning grave markers. In a small cemetery in Hayden Indiana a granite bench sits atop a family grave plot. When one family member dies, a new sculpture will be sitting on the bench. Though some of the community members tried to have it removed because it was too big or distracting, the bench remains and to this day, only one sculpture sits on the bench, waiting, waiting for another.

“Tombs are the clothes of the dead. A grave is a plain suit; while an expensive monument is one with embroidery.” Buckminster Fuller

8. Prices

Prices vary based on the type, size and material of the gravestone ordered as well as the extent to which it is personalized. The price categories are basic, popular and premium.

The following will give you an idea of the price range for two different types of gravestones:

Upright Headstones

  • A basic upright headstone can be found for as low as $700. However, stones can run up to $10,000 based on the material chosen, the color, the size as well as the engravings. Usually, though, you can buy one within the range of $1,000 at the low end and $3,000 at the high end.
    • For example, a simple granite headstone, with a family name will probably run under $2,000. The same granite headstone, with a family name, the name and dates of the person who died, a carved out cross and a favorite saying may cost between $4,000 or $5,000.
  • A premium upright monuments can run between $4,000.00 and $30,000.00. The price will depend on the material you choose, the size you select, the designs or images you want and the engravings.

Flat Markers

  • A basic design flat marker can run between $300 and $1,200. Anything personalized, you have to remember, regardless of the type of marker you select, will be more expensive.
    • For example, a flat marker in bronze with a family name may run $500 but a marker in bronze with a picture, a favorite saying and a symbol can run over $2,000.
  • Often markers have popular designs, and just like what is popular in fashion or technology, they cost more. The popular designs on flat markers usually run between $1,200 and $2,200.
  • A premium flat marker can run between $2,200.00 and $8,000.00. They are considered the top of the line in materials, engravings, and size
  • Ask for a price list so you are sure you understand just what costs what. The stone has a price, the material has a price, the design has a price, and the engraving has a price. You can select a granite gothic tablet in a basic design and pay much less than if you select a premium Obelisk stone.

9. Accessories

Often people want accessories for the gravestone. Since flowers can no longer be planted in the ground because of ground maintenance, flowerpots holders are often selected. You may also want a flag holder, a ceramic picture or a memorial light. These accessories are not included in the price of the gravestone, so be aware of your budget and what you can afford.

10. Should I buy online?

You actually can buy gravestones and accessories online, but you must be careful. Do your homework, check out the online option with the Better Business Bureau, and research to know if the company you have selected has a credible reputation and stands by its product with a warranty, in case issues arise when you receive it. Also check out the privacy policy of the online site, and be sure it includes an address and a contact number

11. Should I buy with my local cemetery?

Cemeteries have the names of local companies that do headstones, and they can be relied on to provide trustworthy information about what company or companies are best. Ask friends who have had to purchase a stone because they are great resources. Then visit your options in your town. Look things over, and go back home and talk about things before you decide.

Ask about warranties or guarantees regarding stone. A good company stands behind it product, offers a warranty and assures the quality of the product from materials to workmanship.


Buying a gravestone is the final step in the process of burying a loved one. It requires a set budget, research, comparison-shopping, and family input. You need to know if you want a simple marker for personal memories or a stone that will last for generations to come. Graves sites can have an upright headstone with a family name and a flat marker over each individual grave, or they can have one tablet headstone, upon which each name of the one who died is engraved. You can decide on multiple headstones, one for each family member or married couple or you can elect to have a simple bronze plaque that is stuck into the ground. The choice is yours, so it is beneficial to ask the right questions, select a company you can trust to make the stone you want, and be sure you know the guidelines of the cemetery where the burial will take place.

Cremation Staff

We are a group of cremation and funeral professionals seeking to share our knowledge and help save you some time, some energy, and hopefully some money.

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