How To Design a Headstone

Though funeral services take place over a few hours, a headstone is a permanent memorial that nods to the significance of a life. However, most people have never designed a headstone. Taking time to carefully consider how to create a monument that showcases a special someone is important—and we’re here to help.


When you first begin to think about designing a headstone, start with a list. Write down the top five things you’d like future generations to know, whether you’re designing for yourself or a loved one. From there, you can begin to translate those ideas into thoughtful design elements, including: 

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Size and shape

The first thing to consider about a headstone is size and shape.

When you’re choosing the size and shape of your headstone, keep in mind the following guiding factors: 

  • Cemetery requirements. Not all cemeteries allow all types of grave markers, and even those that do may not allow every kind of marker in every section of the cemetery. Some cemeteries place restrictions on types of stone or require specific colors. Before you set your sights on a particular headstone, find out what the cemetery you're choosing does and does not allow.
  • The number of people for whom the headstone will serve as a memorial. If two or more people will be commemorated on the headstone or monument, it may need to be a bit larger to accommodate multiple epitaphs.
  • The size of your plot. Many cemeteries require that the base of the headstone be as wide as the spot minus a few inches in community garden plots. In family plots or build-to-suit spaces, there are typically fewer restrictions. 
  • The personality and presence of the loved one. The thicker stone in some upright memorials may invoke ideas of strength, power or achievement, whereas thinner or more delicately carved upright memorials may evoke elegance, subtlety and sweetness.
  • Your budget. If you have a larger budget or if the memorial stone is for someone with high status, you might opt for a grander headstone. If you’d like to keep the memorial more affordable or simple, flat markers allow room for a name and life range and are generally less expensive than upright memorials and ledgers, which provide larger surfaces to fit more text.

A unique shape can help enhance a headstone’s design appeal, even if it’s smaller.

Cemetery grounds at Sunset Memorial Park

Headstones come in all shapes, sizes and designs, including:

  • Upright: These headstones are the most traditional. An upright headstone is most often used for companions or a family, though it may be used for a single person.
  • Slanted: Similar to an upright headstone, a slanted headstone's back edge sits higher than its front. Slanted headstones can memorialize either one or two loved ones.
  • Bench: A memorial bench allows visitors to sit while they visit their loved one's grave. The bench seat can be the headstone itself or it might be situated to the side of the headstone. Some families skip the headstone and simply use a granite bench as a memorial, with the backrest of the bench displaying the loved one's information.
  • Wing: As its name suggests, a wing headstone has two upright tablets joined in the middle by a base that may hold a vase for flowers or a statue or symbol or some kind. This is a common choice for couples.

Upright headstones give families design choices such as:

  • Serpentine top: a gentle rise and fall
  • Apex top: a dramatic pointed peak
  • Check top: an angular square-on-square
  • Straight sides: sides perpendicular to the ground
  • Convex sides: sides that curve outward
  • Concave sides: sides that curve inward


Most headstones are crafted from granite, bronze or marble. Granite and bronze are very durable. Granite is the most affordable headstone material, and its size, shape and color options are almost limitless. Marble provides a polished appearance, but it must be frequently maintained because it tends to break down more quickly than granite. 

The material you choose will depend on your personal preference, the type of headstone and your budget.

Regardless of the material, however, a headstone can be personalized with names, dates, symbols, illustrations and other details that help tell a unique life story.

A cremation garden with beveled memorial niches.


Once you know the size and material of the headstone, you can begin to think about lettering. The size of the headstone determines the surface area that can be personalized. The color of the material can impact the readability of small lettering. Font choice can subtly convey a message. For example, If your loved one had a friendly and affectionate personality, try a soft, round font like Varela Round. Comic Sans is a good font to convey playfulness, while a calligraphy font, such as Edwardian Script, is great for those looking for a more sophisticated option.

Quotes, sayings and verses

A headstone will almost always include a loved one's name, birth date and death date. Often a headstone will also include an epitaph that reflects the loved one’s values, career or particular role they played in the lives of others. It can take the form of a passage from the Bible or prayer or short saying for which the loved one was known.

A few examples:

  • A father’s epitaph may embody the valuable advice they often gave their children, such as, “Do what you love.”
  • The epitaph for someone who played competitive sports can be a nod to their excellence and dedication, like one tennis star’s words, “Overpower. Overtake. Overcome.”
  • A nurse’s epitaph could point to the value of their work, as with Lao Tzu’s words, “From caring comes courage.”

If you’re looking for inspiration for the right epitaph or headstone inscription for your loved one, consider one of these timeless favorites: 

  • In loving memory of our beloved mother 
  • Devoted husband, father and grandfather
  • In God’s care
  • Absent in body but present in spirit
  • Gone from our sight but not from our hearts
  • May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life

This regal row of family memorial markers displays one of the many customizable cremation memorials we offer.

Engraving and etching options

Outside of words, there are other ways to highlight a person's special life on a headstone. Etching and engravings can go a step beyond lettering.


Engraving is cutting into a headstone either by hand or with a machine. Engraving is usually used for lettering a headstone. It's also the best choice for simple artistic designs, such as:

  • Illustrations of love, like wedding bands for spouses
  • Religious symbols for the devout, including the Sacred Heart (Catholics), a cross (Christians), a Star of David (Jews), a crescent moon and star (Muslims)
  • Flowers, like a rose for a mother or daisy for a child 
  • Musical symbols, like a staff with notes for a musician or music lover

Engravings can be made in several different styles, including: 

  • Flat carving: Outline only, for basic inscriptions 
  • Shape carving: Complex, textured and dimensional 
  • Band carving: A continuous carving, usually a floral pattern, that wraps around an upright memorial stone
  • Bas relief carving: A premier carving with three-dimensional, elaborate designs


Etching is a process that can be done by hand or with a laser, depending on the design. It’s a great option for:

  • Very ornate illustrations
  • High-resolution images
  • Lifelike photographs
  • Longer headstone messages
  • Black and white colors

Some etching examples:

  • For a grandmother who lived a long and storied life, consider a detailed text that highlights her achievements.
  • For the artist or poet, reproductions of their artworks or poems to share their creativity with the visitors to their grave.
  • For the world traveler, an illustrated map showing where they roamed.
  • For a deeply personal tribute to a child, include an etching of their most recent school picture.

Both etchings and engravings are impacted by the finish and color of the stone you choose. Laser etching is best done on black or dark-colored stone, as it offers the best contrast.

Careful combinations of lettering, engravings and even paint can yield brilliant tributes. 

how to design a headstone 5


Imagery adds to the beauty and style of a headstone and can help achieve a very custom design.


Photographs are powerful, and many people remember images better than they do words. A photograph of a loved one offers an everlasting visual that can help connect current and future generations. Multiple photos showing different stages of life tell a unique story. Some people have photos of things they loved on their headstones. We've seen pets, cars, landscapes, representations of hobbies and much more.

A photo can be etched into a black headstone, cast in bronze or printed on ceramic and attached to the monument. The latter is a popular option because it can be added at a later dateFor the best results, select a high-resolution photo with a simple, uncluttered background. (If the photograph was taken by someone other than the family, you may need to get permission from the owner prior to using the photo on the memorial.)

Religious symbols

Incorporating religious imagery in a headstone design can help you honor the spiritual traditions that meant the most to your loved one. These symbols may include: 

  • The Star of David or Shabbat candles for a person of the Jewish faith 
  • For a devout Muslim, a crescent and star can represent Islam 
  • Buddhists’ faith may be represented by a Dharma wheel 
  • People of different Christian denominational faiths may wish for crosses 
  • For atheists or agnostics, less specific spiritual images include the dove of peace, a heart or an infinity symbol

The possibilities are endless.

Plan with us

The best way to get the headstone design you want is to pre-plan. When you plan ahead, your family knows exactly what headstone design you desire and they don't have to worry about finding the money to pay for it when you need it. You can also pre-order your headstone, so your family doesn't have to wait the typical six to eight months for a custom order. A Dignity Memorial® associate can show you how.