Q. My husband died recently and I’m thinking about what should be written on his stone. Are there any rules to follow—or any caveats? I don’t want to look back a few years from now and think “Why on earth did I pick those words?”
You’re talking about an “epitaph,” a commemorative inscription on a gravestone. The format usually includes the deceased’s name and date of birth and death:
August 1, 1954-March 4, 2012
A further inscription, if desired, would precede or follow, as in “Beloved husband” or “Loving husband, father, grandfather.” Or it might summarize his life or legacy or describe what made him unique, as in “Loving husband and father and respected teacher.” An epitaph for a dedicated attorney might read, “He loved the law.” And “A Gentle Man and a Gentleman” says it all in the epitaph for boxing champion Jack Dempsey.
You might also want ask yourself, “What words would he want?" Some inscriptions are actually funny, such as the one on Winston Churchill’s gravestone: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” I suspect he wrote the lines himself at some point before his death. “Rest in peace” or just “R.I.P” is a common addition to some epitaphs.
Other possibilities include a verse or poem that captures the essence of your husband. Or you might wish to quote something from the Bible. A friend of mine got more personal, inscribing “Boy of my heart” on a memorial for her husband, who died tragically. The words had special meaning because he was a dynamic businessman, who always managed to retain a boyish quality at the same time.
Whatever you choose, try to keep it very simple, which will minimize the chances you’ll have regrets years from now. Remember, this is an extremely emotional time for you. For your own peace of mind, consider running potential inscriptions past family members or trusted friends for an objective opinion. They may also offer suggestions that never occurred to you.
Incidentally, many motifs are available from monument makers, such as vines, flowers or borders that help make the stone less stark. You can search online to get an idea of what’s available. Some stones also include symbols. For example, praying hands may indicate devotion.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is a freelance journalist, author — and a widow herself. Her books include My Deepest Sympathies, When the Man You Love Is Ill, What Do You Say When and Just a Note to Say...The Perfect Words for Every Occasion.
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