A fading headstone name evokes the history of a time and family.
A fading headstone name evokes the history of a time and family.

American writer Dorothy Parker suggested that her name be followed by an epitaph on her headstone: "Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment." Names on grave markers may be embellished with the wit of the deceased, shadowed with a sentiment of loss from mourners, tucked in among religious or cultural symbols or simply flanked by birth and death dates.

History of Headstones

Ancient tombs may have featured a gravestone with the highlights of heroic exploits accompanying the name of the deceased, as was common among Romans. But other cultures left a stark cairn, or a pile of stones, like the Celts did, with no name to identify the dead. Over time, religious iconography shared space on the headstone's face with the name and sometimes dates of birth and death. A lamb meant the innocence of a child -- a "lamb of God"; a cross and crown meant a Christian burial. Gradually, the names were followed by a Bible verse or a line of poetry. A soldier's headstone might include rank and the battle in which he died. Some historic European and American gravestones reveal only name and profession. Typically, companion memorials, in which a husband and wife are buried side by side, read from left to right beginning with the husband's name, and the bodies are interred in that order as well.

Tombstone Templates

Conventions exist to be broken as trends change, and today cemetery and mausoleum regulations are likely to determine the style and information of the inscription on the headstone. The name is usually the most prominent feature and birth and death dates are almost always included. But design restrictions in cemeteries that insist on uniformity can limit the creativity of the survivors. Arlington National Cemetery, for example, permits 11 lines of text with 13 characters and spaces for the name line and 15 characters and spaces for the other lines. The information required is name, branch of service, rank and birth/death dates. Other lines may contain combat duty, military awards, a brief term of endearment -- "proud soldier," "loving father," "fought for freedom" -- and an optional religious symbol.

Religious Requirements

Religious places of interment often determine the way names and inscriptions are presented on headstones so they become a declaration of faith. The strict Orthodox Jewish Chasidic movement prefers the engraved Hebrew name of both the deceased and deceased's father and the Hebrew death date and year of death. Survivors may opt to add the names of the religious community and its leader, and every headstone must have a saying in Hebrew that means "May his (her) soul be bound in the binding of life." The Chabad website specifies that praise for the deceased's accomplishments would result in the soul being judged by that acclaim, so no accolades are permitted on the headstone. Neither are pictures, carvings or images of the human form.

Famous Names

Fame is a game-changer when it comes to headstone name etiquette. American outlaw Jesse James was ambushed for the reward money. His headstone reads: "Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 days, Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here." Huckleberry Finn's creator has a headstone that has two names. The first line reads "Samuel Langhorne Clemens" from end to end. Below it is a large "Mark Twain" and his birth and death dates. Blues singer Bessie Smith was buried in an unmarked grave for 33 years until rock star Janis Joplin paid for a headstone that reads "Bessie Smith, The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing." And an actor whose specialty on stage and screen was romantic comedy turned his headstone into a Broadway marquee. The first line says "Jack Lemmon." The second line says "in." The rest of the headstone is blank.