Because we carve our headstones by hand we are not restricted to templates and any set of symbols or carvings. This means that almost any symbol that you can draw can be carved on a headstone. However, we need to be careful to keep the carving fairly simple and stylised if it is to look good on stone. Carvings can be in relief (sunken or raised) or sometimes a simple line drawing. For inspiration see this post on gravestone symbols
Although using strong chemicals to clean a headstone can have quick and dramatic results, it can lead to long-term damage and erosion to the surface of the headstone. For this reason, we always advise you to start with simply water and some kitchen roll and perhaps a soft brush. For small stains, you can use fine-grain wet and dry paper, but you need to be very careful to get the right grade- please ask us for advice first. See this blog post for more details on cleaning headstones.
The longevity of the inscription will depend on the type of stone as well as the location. If the headstone is situated in a damp, shady spot beneath trees, for example, it will weather much faster than a sunny spot. Limestones such as Portland will weather much faster than Slate, but we compensate for this by using bold, larger and deeper letters in limestone, and the natural weathering process can, in fact, enhance and improve the legibility of the inscription as it increases the contrast between the cut surface and the face of the headstone. Flat stones will weather more quickly than upright ones because the water does not run off them as quickly.
From time to time a headstone can stain, usually from natural sources such as iron in the soil, or from lichen. For this reason, if the headstone is to be situated in a very damp or dark, shady location, we advise choosing a material such as slate which is less porous than limestone.
These simple tips will help you write an epitaph:
For inspiration see my long list of epitaphs.
Granite or marble are the hardest materials and thus will last the longest. However, we never use these materials for headstones as they do not lend themselves to hand-carved lettering. I also find them too cold and polished, and they often do not blend in well in a churchyard. These materials are favoured by monumental masons as they are easy to sandblast and cheap but increasingly banned from churchyards. When someone wants an enduring hand-carved headstone, we recommend using slate- this beautiful material is wonderfully smooth and warm, and will last for hundreds of years, and while it does not weather very much, it will mellow and soften in time. See this article for examples of slate headstones.
We are often asked to carve something from nature, such as trees, flowers, birds and animals. A cross is also a popular choice, as is a sunken, gilded disc. Seek inspiration from your loved one. What were their interests? Did they draw something you'd like translated onto stone? For inspiration see this post on gravestone symbols.
You do not have to buy a headstone from the cemetery, nor do you have to buy a headstone from a funeral director. If you are lead to believe otherwise make sure you are not being misled. Cemeteries and funeral directors sometimes try to control where people buy headstones for their own commercial gain, but there is no reason you cannot buy a headstone from somewhere else. If you want a unique, bespoke headstone it is best to seek out independent lettering artists like Stoneletters.
There is no “normal” size for a headstone, but on average, headstones tend to measure about 3ft tall and 20” wide. The height is often determined by the cemetery or churchyard regulations and by the existing headstones (you may or may not wish a new headstone to stand out from the others). The width will be largely determined by the inscription. Unlike monumental masons, we design every headstone individually, so we can order the headstone to the exact specifications of our design.
There are two main methods for securing (fixing) a gravestone: the monolith method and the dowel (pin) method. We only use the monolith method which involves inserting an additional third of the headstone below ground level, into a NAMM-approved concrete shoe. This method fully conforms with safety standards BS8415 and is in our opinion by far the best fixing method. For more details of these methods and their pros and cons, see this article on fixing headstones.
Occasionally, people approach us to design and create their own headstone. This may be because they have specific designs and plans in mind or because they fear there may be family disagreement about their headstone. Sometimes if someone does not have any family they need to take the initiative themselves. We can make a headstone while you are still alive and store it in the workshop, adding the final date after your death. An alternative is to have your headstones designed and to leave the design with your will. Only the registered grave owner will be able to authorise the final placement of the headstone.
We generally advise that "less is more", but the length of an epitaph is a personal choice. It will depend in part on the amount of space available, which in turn is dependent on the size and type of stone allowed and the number of people being commemorated. It will also depend on whether you are going to use the reverse of the headstone or even the edge for an epitaph. The best epitaphs are usually quite short although sometimes people want to include a poem or some lyrics. You need to bear in mind the rules and regulations, especially for a churchyard, where epitaphs should usually be compatible with Christian beliefs. Visit this blog post for further advice on choosing an epitaph.
If you visit an old graveyard or cemetery you will often see leaning headstones. This is often a result of the ground beneath the headstones compacting and shifting as the coffin collapses. When a hole is infilled after burial the soil is often not compacted enough and will continue to sink and move for at least a year. For this reason, although it is permitted to erect a headstone after six months, we advise allowing eighteen months after the burial before erecting a headstone. We use a monolith fixing method which allows us to easily right a headstone again should it start to tilt after it has been erected. It is essential that at least a third of the headstone is below the ground set into a concrete shoe so that the centre of gravity is low enough.
Yes, permission is always required to put a headstone on a grave, and we do not order a stone before permission is granted. We will usually obtain permission on your behalf, although the form will need to be signed by the registered grave owner. For churchyards this involves a Diocese CR1 form which is sent to the vicar. We always obtain permission before ordering the stone. This process usually takes around a month but it can take longer, especially when a headstone design falls outside churchyard regulations- in these cases, a faculty may be sought, which may take several months. There is usually a fee for erecting a headstone, currently £140 for churchyard memorials. See this article for Oxfordshire Diocese Churchyard Regulations.
We encourage people to keep headstones as simple as possible. At the very least people usually include the names and dates of birth and death or age. The middle name is not often used but can be included. You may also include a short inscription, either on the front, side or back of the stone. Sometimes people like to include a poem or a literary or Biblical quotation. There is often a carving on the headstone, which tends to be at the top. Popular symbols include trees, plants, animals and the gold disc. For more details see this blog post.
There are no hard and fast rules about putting a maiden name on a headstone. When it is included convention is to include the prefix nee (with an accent over the first e) or b. which is a matter of personal choice. The prefix nee derives from the French “naitre” and means “to be born”. It indicates the birth name of a woman who has taken her husband’s name after marriage.
Choosing what to put on a baby’s gravestone can feel like an impossible and upsetting task. Take your time and don’t feel rushed and pressured into choosing an epitaph too soon. Sometimes a small carving can be better when words aren’t enough. I have compiled a list of epitaphs for children for inspiration. You might want to consider choosing a pebble headstone, which is smooth and tactile for a baby’s gravestone.
Yes, we can always add an additional inscription to one of our headstones as long as we have allowed enough room in the original design. When space has not been made I advise replacing the headstone with a new one, as there is nothing worse than an addition that looks like an afterthought. For this reason, it is always worthing considering whether or not you will want additional names or inscriptions added at the time of the initial design. I usually remove my headstones and carve the inscription in my workshop but it can be done in-situ. The way I install my headstones allows me to remove them without damaging them. The lettering of the new inscription should always be the same as the original. Permission to add an inscription must be obtained from the church or authorities and there will be an additional fee.
I usually advise using a temporary gravestone marker until you are ready to erect a headstone. A temporary marker takes the pressure off you to hurry into a decision about the final headstone that should not be rushed. A simple wooden marker or cross with a small brass plate make perfect temporary markers, and they need not be large. A temporary marker can be accompanied by some flowers or a plant that you can tend and look after while waiting to place a headstone. A good time to erect a headstone might be the second anniversary of the death, which might be marked with a ceremony.
We find that painted lettering is generally allowed as long as it looks natural. We do not paint limestones, but we tend to paint our slate and Aurisina headstones with a light wash of paint in a colour that mimics the natural cut surface. This improves legibility and will last a long time on an upright stone. For ledger stones and flat stones, the paint will not last so long so you might decide not to use paint. Occasionally we use a different colour such as light blue, or red, but not all vicars will allow this. Cemeteries tend to be more lenient.
Several factors may influence your decision on the best material for a headstone. These include the style and amount of lettering, whether you want a carving, the colour and tone, texture, touch and location as well as cost. Our favourite materials for a headstone include Slate, Portland limestone, Yorkstone and Aurisina. We always tend to use stones from the UK whenever possible. Read this blog post for more information on choosing a headstone material.
Although these are popular choices with monumental masons they do not lend themselves well to hand-carved lettering. They also tend to be highly polished and do not blend in well in churchyards. Most vicars actively discourage their use these days. Monumental masons like granite and marble because they are long-lasting, take sandblasting well, and are often cheaply imported. We never use granite, but occasionally we will use marble if it fits in well with the surroundings.
We always ask our clients for a deposit of 20% at the point of go-ahead to help cover the cost of the material. The balance is then due on completion. We try to be flexible with payments and some clients have arranged in advance to pay in installments over a longer period of time.
Yes! We welcome clients from all over the UK and we always try to install our headstones ourselves even if it means staying overnight somewhere. When headstones are to be installed overseas we offer to come and install them ourselves but it tends to be more cost-effective to ship the headstone and arrange a local mason to install it. We encourage you to visit the workshop if you can, even if it is only at the outset, as there is so much to see and feel and it is always good to work face to face. However, we have many clients who are not able to visit and it is perfectly feasible to work remotely using photographs and email. If you live in London, we have good train connections, with our closest station being Charlbury or Kingham, just over an hour from London Paddington.
Sometimes the first meeting is a starting point when you just come to have a look and then go away again until you feel ready to commission a headstone. This may be several years later, and there is nothing wrong with taking your time. If you want to take the first step in getting a headstone commissioned, then it would be helpful if you bring the following information when you visit:
We have shipped headstones overseas in the past, although there are hurdles that need to be overcome. The main issues are:
Yes, please always make an appointment to visit. Fergus is not always here and he needs to make sure there are no clients visiting at the same time.
Yes, we live in the Costwolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty. We would highly recommend our local pub, The Hare in Milton under Wychwood if you would like somewhere to eat after visiting. They do not have accommodation though. In the village, there are bed and breakfasts we can recommend, or if you don't mind travelling a further 15 minutes there are several very special pubs with excellent food and accommodation nearby. This blog post provides lots of ideas for places to stay and eat in our area.
No, every letter is hand-drawn and we are not restricted to any stencils and set typefaces. People often email us asking for the name of the lettering used on a particular stone, and while many of our letters are based on typefaces such as Caslon for example, we modify them to suit the stone we are working on.
Normally a jam jar or coffee jar would be sunk into the ground which can hold flowers... the water can be easily replaced. We avoid the very monumental cubic vases with metal lids! Sometimes the client asks us to lay a base of the same material in front of the headstone (the top being at ground level) which acts as a plinth for vases etc.
We don't usually make kerbs as they always tend to break up over time and we feel they can then look a bit depressing. The best idea is to plant a dwarf box hedge around the perimeter which only needs trimming once a year, or simply plant the grave up with flowers if permitted, to deter people walking over it. Pebbles can also be a natural addition.