Choosing a Headstone
“At the temple there is a poem called “Loss” carved into the stone. It has three words, but the poet has scratched them out. You cannot read loss, only feel it.”
It was with a degree of incredulity that I walked along each row of upright headstones, yesterday, simply looking. So many graves. So many names. So many people. Knowing that the purpose of my visit was to research headstones, before I choose one for my mother, seemed unreal. We lost my mum back in January and, although I accept that she has gone, some part of me still cannot quite believe it. Some part of me thinks she must simply be away on holiday and that she will be returning to her cosy little bungalow, soon. Of course, she won’t be returning and I was surveying headstones for her grave.
I have always found cemeteries fascinating. They are such quiet places, filled with the rich history of a community and each has a palpable atmosphere and appearance. This was Halesworth cemetery, here in Suffolk. I had not been there before but my husband, Kevin, is a Civil Funeral Celebrant and he recommended this would be the best place for me to see a good variety of recently placed headstones. I had looked online. That was helpful but I recommend that, if you are also looking for headstones for a loved one, then going to see headstones in a cemetery will give you the best sense of colour, style, shape, and proportion. In particular, seeing the different colours and styles of letter engravings at a cemetery, gives you a good sense of which would best suit your tastes and needs.
Another benefit of visiting a cemetery to inspect headstones, before buying one, is that you get to see how they have aged. Some stones look as immaculate as they day they were placed, even decades later. Some look gently aged and weathered. Some looked rather tatty and even scarred by dirt and weather in a way which looked ugly. Looking at how the engravings had survived the years was also helpful. Gold lettering was definitely the weakest, in terms of longevity over the shortest time. That will definitely be one to avoid. White lettering seemed somehow to make a headstone look more like an advertising billboard! So, you see how this little excursion was proving to be most helpful? I was starting to get a sense of what we would want, for my mum.
Then, there is the question of which type of finish? Some headstones are polished. They gleam, in the sunlight, like immaculate mirrors but, to my taste, they are a little too far from what is traditional. I know that my mum had a great love of history and tradition and so these very shiny obelisks would definitely be wrong for her. Again, I would not have realised that from simply looking for a headstone by viewing an image of one online. I was able to rule out the idea of a polished, glossy headstone in favour of one which has a matte finish.
As for colours, well there were more than I anticipated. From the familar grey stone that we might all associate with headstones of old, there were stones of varying shades of black, grey, blue, green and red. Soft toned colours, but a palette of colours, nonetheless. With some discussion with Kevin, as we considered these different options, we eventually agreed that a mid tone grey granite would give a contemporary elegance but would also lean toward the more traditional; a nod toward my mum and her own taste.
Finally, there was the matter of shape and style. From the very plain and simple shape of headstone, through to the most ornate, asymmetrical headstones with engraved imagery on them. We gave this a great deal of thought and discussed our own preference and, again, considered my mum’s tastes and we agreed upon the shape and style of headstone. We also explored the idea of kerbing; this is where there is a border that runs the length of a grave. Many people like the idea of these both due to style but also as a means of preventing people from walking over the grave itself. Again, we agreed on what to do about kerbing.
One of the matters to be aware of is that you will need to consult the rules of any cemetery before making your purchase. Cemeteries may have rules which stipulate the shapes, styles and even colours that may be used for headstones within their land. Some may have rules around whether or not kerbing is permitted. Research online also suggests that many have rules about whether engraved imagery on headstones is permissible. Please do check this out before you go ahead and commission the headstone. Headstones are not inexpensive and so this research is important.
With all of these considerations, including having looked at the more statuesque options; such as celtic crosses or sculptures, my experience was that it comes down to a feeling. With all of this information, it still came down to a sense of how we felt based upon our own preferences and, significantly, the sense of knowing what my mum’s tastes and values were.
Now, some of you may balk at the idea of going through this process. I would like to offer that my experience was a positive one. In some way, it felt like this was less an act of simply choosing to buy something. It was also less about being reminded that my mum has passed away, for we were discussing her tastes as if she was in the present, with us.
It was far more a sense that we were doing something to look after my mum. We were doing something for her. Given that she is no longer around, going out to explore what to buy for her, offered us a sense of the familiar. In her later years, we would regularly pick up shopping for my mum. In some way, going out to pick a headstone was us going shopping for her. That familiarity and sense of doing something for her, in the present, was actually a joyful experience. It will, perhaps, be the last time we get to feel this familiar sense of doing something for my mum, in the present. Maybe the placing of the headstone and the future visits to lay flowers will offer a semblance of that feeling? It will be all that is left to do, after all.
What happens next? Well, I need to check the rules of my mum’s cemetery for the things detailed above. If we find that our preferred options do not meet the rules, we will then return and repeat the process. I did not want to check the rules, first, because I wanted only to be influenced by that sense of feeling that I described above. That lead us to our true preference. That will either make sense to you, or it will not, but it was an important element for me.
I also need to check how long we have to leave the grave before a headstone can be placed there. The reason that there is a period of waiting, before a headstone is placed, is due to needing the ground to settle. In simple terms, after burial, it takes time for the earth to come to its own resting place. The ground moves and settles. It is only once the ground has settled, that a headstone can safely be placed at the grave, without fear of it listing or falling.
I hope that you find this blog entry helpful. If you are going through a similar experience, or if you relate to this post from previous experience, do feel free to comment, below. The more we share here, the more that others may learn and gain comfort from our experience.
(c) Dean G. Parsons. 2020.