How to write an epitaph

There are some traditional words and phrases you could include on your loved one’s headstone. But you can adapt this to reflect your loved one’s wishes or personality.

An epitaph is a short piece of text that goes on someone’s headstone, often alongside their name, birth date and death date. This guide will offer some guidance on writing an epitaph for a loved one, including some ideas for what you could include.

Traditional epitaphs

Epitaphs tend to include some information about the person who died, plus a short message

This could include things like:

  • A list of their relationships with some of their loved ones (e.g. “mother, daughter, friend”)

  • A few words about their life

  • A verse or phrase from a particular text, especially one that was important to them

  • A message from their loved ones to the person reading the headstone

People tend not to write epitaphs in full sentences.

There are some traditional phrases that lots of people use on epitaphs

Some common messages include:

  • “Gone but never forgotten”

  • “Forever in our hearts”

  • “Rest in Peace”

  • “In Loving Memory”

Some people might use just one of these phrases. Other people might prefer to write something more personal, or ‘mix-and-match’ more common phrases with something they’ve written themselves.

Writing on the wall

Lots of famous writers have chosen to write their own epitaphs. John Keats famously wrote “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water”, whilst the grave of comedian and writer Spike Milligan simply reads “I told you I was ill”.

Writing a personal epitaph

Epitaphs tend to be short

Depending on the size of your loved one’s headstone, there might not be space for anything more than a few lines. It’s often best to choose something short and impactful.

Some people find it hard to know what to include

An epitaph does not need to include every detail of your loved one’s life. It just needs to mark their life in a way that suits them.

You could think about things like:

  • Which relationships were most important to them?

  • What did they most enjoy doing?

  • Are there any achievements they’re especially proud of?

  • What positive adjectives would people use to describe them?

Epitaphs tend to last a long time

Headstones tend to be good at withstanding the elements, so your loved one’s epitaph will usually be visible far into the future.

It’s normally wise to avoid putting anything negative in your loved one’s epitaph, or anything that could offend other people who knew them.

This could include things like:

  • Previous marriages or relationships, if they were on bad terms when your loved one died

  • Jokes that others might find insensitive or alienating

  • Details about their life that might embarrass or upset people close to them

Your loved one might have left instructions for their epitaph

This will often be in their will. Some people might leave very specific instructions, whereas others might be vaguer.

You can follow the traditional structure as much or as little as you like

What’s important is that the epitaph is right for you, your loved ones, and the person who’s died. If you’re unsure, you could ask your funeral director for advice, or speak with a trusted friend or relative.

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Finding a headstone

Headstone costs depend on lots of factors

If your loved one has a funeral plan, it might include the cost of the headstone. If not, you’ll need to buy one yourself.

Types of headstone

The type of headstone you’re buying will usually affect the price. These types include:

  • Flat: a type of headstone that tends to be quite small, and is usually level with the ground. These tend to cost around £400. 

  • Upright: a type of headstone that looks like a stone tablet, and tends to be the most common in the UK. These usually cost £1,200 - £1,500.

  • Kerbed: a type of headstone which covers the whole grave. These usually cost around £2,000.


Some people choose to have particular symbols engraved on their loved one’s headstones. These often have particular meanings.

Some traditional symbols include:

  • Arches, which symbolise the person passing into the afterlife

  • Books, which symbolise the Bible, learning and memory

  • An oak leaf, which symbolises strength

  • An Irish Cross or laurels, which symbolise eternity

  • Palms or a phoenix, which symbolise resurrection

  • A willow, which symbolises mourning

Some people will also choose engravings related to their loved one’s job. Some common job-related engravings include:

  • Corn/wheat for a farmer

  • An anchor for a Naval veteran

  • A mortar and pestle for a pharmacist or doctor

Some of these engravings can be expensive - especially if the design is especially complex, or if the headstone material is hard to work with.

Other factors

Headstone costs will also depend on:

  • Where you live

  • Headstone material

  • Headstone size

There are sometimes add-ons that are not included in the quoted price, like the cost of polishing the headstone. It could be helpful to ask exactly how much a headstone is likely to cost before committing to buy it.

Your funeral director might be able to help you find a headstone for your loved one

They will often have a particular supplier they work with, and will usually be able to advise on average prices for your area.

Discuss your options from home

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Maintaining a headstone

Some people choose to continue maintaining their loved one’s headstone

This might include things like:

  • Brushing away any moss that’s grown on it

  • Cleaning off any dirt that might have accumulated

  • Clipping back any grass or weeds around the headstone

Lots of household cleaning products can damage headstones

It’s usually best to avoid cleaning headstones with anything abrasive, such as metal scourers or steel wool. It also tends to be wise to avoid harsh cleaning products, especially bleach. These can all damage headstone surfaces.

Some cleaning products that work well include:

  • Soft nylon brushes, for gently sweeping away soil and moss

  • Distilled water, for helping to remove tougher dirt

  • Old toothbrushes, for cleaning around engravings

How you maintain a headstone will depend on the material it’s made out of

Some headstone materials will be more prone to damage, even if they seem sturdy. If you’re unsure about how to care for a particular headstone, you could ask your funeral director.

You can maintain your loved one’s headstone as much or as little as you like

Some people do it very regularly, whilst others might do it every so often - sometimes on a particular date, like their loved one’s birthday.

Equally, lots of people choose to leave their loved one’s headstone alone. This might be because they do not live near their loved one’s final resting place, or just because they’d prefer not to. You can do whatever makes sense for you and your loved ones.

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