All About Shopping for Headstones and Other Grave Markers

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While you can have a burial without a headstone, the right marker can be a fitting memorial and touching way to remember a loved one. But if you’ve never shopped for headstones or grave markers before, you may be surprised by just how many choices you have—from the style of what sits at the head of the grave to the level of personalization.

Types of gravestones

Cemetery markers

This typically refers to small, flat gravestones that are flush to the ground or raised just a few inches above. Some are set at a slight angle, so they’re easier to read. But in general you won’t see a marker’s inscription unless you’re standing beside the grave.

  • Pros: Markers tend to cost significantly less than other options and require little maintenance. Most cemetery groundskeepers will keep markers clear of grass and weeds, which can be ideal if family lives out of town and isn’t able to visit regularly.
  • Cons: Because of their smaller size, markers have less space for inscriptions. Most include simply a person’s name and years of birth and death, though it’s still possible to add personalization, such as an attached vase to hold flowers, an etched drawing (say, of the person’s likeness or a religious figure), or intricate edging.
  • Costs: Simple cemetery markers start at around $250. Prices increase based on customization and materials, with more ornate options costing around $1,000.

Headstones

A headstone sits erect and perpendicular to the lawn. This is what most people think of when they hear the term “gravestone.” There are two pieces to a headstone: the tablet (the vertical piece) and the base (which sits on the ground and holds the tablet in place). Headstones are easier to spot from a distance, but still smaller than the monuments you’ll find at some cemeteries. A headstone might be used to mark one grave, or a larger headstone could span both burial sites for a married couple or even more for a small family.

  • Pros: With more space comes more potential for customization—and the options are nearly limitless. Some people inscribe the headstone with extra text, such as a favorite psalm, a family nickname, or a list of nearest kin. Other opt for sculptural elements, such as lilies, angels, or even beloved hobbies. These sculptural elements can extend a foot or more above the tablet. Some people choose to modify the usual rectangular shape of the headstone as well, turning the rounded top into a heart shape, for instance. And the headstone’s base may be extended to allow for permanent flower vases to frame the tablet.
  • Cons: Given the greater size, even a simple headstone will cost more than most cemetery markers. While granite and bronze can withstand weathering, marble may discolor over time and the inscription may fade. Coordinating more choices between family members can also take more time and be overwhelming, for some. You’ll also need to check with the cemetery to see if there any restrictions on headstone size or design elements.
  • Cost: Simple headstones start at around $2,500 but can easily climb closer to $10,000 or even higher, depending on material (bronze and marble are more expensive than granite) and design elements.

Monuments

The name suggests monumental size, and size is indeed what sets this type of gravestone apart. While some may be the same shape as a more traditional headstone, most are also more sculptural in nature: a human-size angel resting atop a large tablet, a marble obelisk stretching eight feet into the air, a carving of a family tree spanning the width of three burial sites.

  • Pros: Monuments can be an elaborate and visually striking way to memorialize a loved one. Some families appreciate that monuments are less common in general and very customized by nature, so they stand out in the cemetery, even at a greater distance.
  • Cons: Cost can be prohibitively high, depending on your budget. Monuments also take longer to order and install, and some cemeteries have limitations on their height, placement, or design elements. Before making a purchase, check with cemetery staff about any guidelines you’ll need to follow.
  • Cost: There’s no clear line that separates a headstone from a monument, and you can find some smaller monuments (aka larger headstones) starting at a few thousand dollars. As the size and intricacy increases, so does the price tag. For monuments that are 10-plus feet high, it’s not uncommon to spend $25,000 or more.

How to buy a gravestone

Whether you’re handling your own end-of-life planning or purchasing a headstone for a loved one, here’s what you should know about the process.

Start at the cemetery

Check with the cemetery where the burial plot is located to see if they have any guidelines or restrictions. For example, they may limit how tall or wide the headstone can be, or allow only cemetery markers in certain sections. They may also have restrictions on the types of material used. You don’t want to get your heart set on a particular headstone only to learn that it’s not allowed at the cemetery.

Choose your material wisely

Marble and limestone may look the nicest in the showroom, but the engravings in this soft material can fade over time. Bronze and granite headstones tend to be the most popular, because they’re easy to maintain and engravings tend to be more durable. Granite and sandstone can also come in different hues (based on where in the world that piece was mined), which range from blue to red to black and all shades of gray. More unusual colors tend to come at a higher cost, and some shades are better for etching than others.

Shop around

While your funeral home or cemetery can often sell you a headstone, you don’t have to buy it through them. You’re free to buy it anywhere, including specialty online retailers and broader sites like Amazon. By shopping around for your headstone, you’ll be able to price out the best option you can afford.

When comparing prices, ask the cemetery if any installation fees are included in their prices. If you buy elsewhere, you may have to pay that amount separately (usually less than a few hundred dollars). Don’t forget to factor in delivery charges if you buy online. Find out if the headstone comes with a warranty (it should), which will protect you in case anything happens to it during its installation.

You’ll also want to find out if the cemetery has workers on hand to install the headstone or monument, or if you’ll need to hire someone independently. There’s also usually a fee from the cemetery for ongoing care and maintenance of the headstone.

Take your time

If you feel rushed by the funeral process, you can wait on purchasing a headstone. You don’t need to have one at the time of the burial and it can always be added later once more pressing details are sorted out. Give yourself time to create the perfect memorial for a loved one.

If you’re pre-planning for your own funeral, this is a good task to handle in advance. You can decide on the design and wording, and have the date of death added later. This can make things easier for your loved ones after your death. You can even inquire about options to prepay for it.

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