Friday, June 25, 2010

Thoughts about Gravestones

Soon after posting “More Thoughts about the Afterlife” on June 15, I made a contribution for the upkeep of New Hope Cemetery in response to a recently-received letter asking for donations to increase the cemetery endowment fund.
The first person to be buried in New Hope Cemetery in rural Worth County was Elizabeth (Montgomery) Seat (1795-1878), my Grandpa Seat’s great-grandmother. There are six generations of Seats buried there, including my little brother who died soon after his birth the year before I was born. All the Seat family graves are marked by easy-to-read gravestones.
In talking about the size of our gift to the cemetery association, June said she thought we ought to finalize the purchase of a plot in New Hope and get our own headstone ordered and erected. And she may be right.
Actually, we are going to be cremated, and she has in mind for 1/3 of our ashes to be buried at New Hope, 1/3 in Polk County where her parents and other relatives are buried, and 1/3 in Japan. I have agreed to that tripartite arrangement. But, still, I am not in a hurry to put up a stone in any of the three places, and I am not sure that I want to.
In thinking more about the matter, it seems to me that gravestones, since they are now usually called monuments or memorial stones, should, by rights, be erected by the descendants of the deceased rather than by people putting up their own stones before they die.
An online dictionary defines monument as something “erected as a memorial,” and a memorial is defined as something “intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.” So, I wonder, why has it become rather common for people to erect their own monuments or memorial stones?
Is the (rather recent?) practice of people erecting their own gravestones primarily because they want to save their children and grandchildren trouble, as often they live in other places? Is it the result of people being afraid their children and grandchildren won’t put up a suitable stone? Or is it the result of monument companies trying to increase their sales by getting people to buy stones sooner rather than later? Or is it all the above?
I am not sure yet what we will do about this matter, but this is part of what I have been thinking with regard to gravestones. I wonder what others around my age or older have, or haven’t, done. And for those who have already erected a “pre-need” stone, I wonder what their rationale was.


  1. Stones leave a tangible evidence of existence which future generations can see and touch, and remember the legacy. Memorials have been important to historic cultures, including the Church. Like the census or the family Bible, it also leaves a trail at documentation for future generations of family to track their historic place on earth. This is sacred (not holy). Outside of names and dates, an epitaph of legacy seems important.

    What epitaph would you like to communicate?

  2. Sooo, do you want your name on my headstone or not?

  3. I'll not try to respond to the previous comment at this point, but, rather, share part of an e-mail received a few minutes ago:

    "Pop bought a headstone to save us the expense and to keep the monument salesman from talking the boys into something extravagant in the future. I wish I could have had an epitaph included for the legacy they have left."

  4. I love the idea of you all being divided among those three places. When I bought a plot for my father in Chilhowee, Missouri, I bought plots for my mother and me as well. Since I have almost no family, I've thought of leaving funds for my friends to have a great old weekend in Branson. More recently I've begun to think of cremation and being sprinkled on the quad at Louisiana College. It seems more cost effective, and then my friends good go to London and spend those funds seeing some good London theatre. I suppose I will look into a grave stone for Chilhowee whether I am ever delivered there or not. I know that I don't want a traditional funeral--a graveside or simple campus funeral with only a few of the folks who are my friends.

  5. Dr. Thomas Howell, a local TF, sent me an e-mail that is quite similar to my thinking. Here is a part of what he wrote:

    "I also believe that any 'monuments' should be for the descendents, although several of my relatives went the pre-need route (very modest gravestones). I honestly believe in those cases that they were genuinely trying to save their descendants the trouble and expense. I’ve served as executor of three estates—so far—and two out of the three had prepared everything in advance, for which, to be fair, I was grateful.

    "I actually extend the line of thinking about the descendants even further. I’ve tried to make it clear that nothing after my death is for my benefit and should accord with the wishes of my descendants. I have no interest in having a funeral, but if those who are still on earth see that as right and proper I have no objection. If they want one, I’ve asked that they make it as inexpensive as they can—that’s no disrespect to me. How I am disposed of is up to them. My personal preference is cremation but if it somehow makes any of them feel better to have my earthly remains buried someplace they can come back to or know that it is there, that’s OK with me too. Yes, I’ve written all this down but I could sum it up in seven words: 'Do whatever you please. I don’t care.'"

  6. Another local TF, one who is a few years older than I, wrote (in part) in an e-mail,

    "We decided about two years ago to get that business taken care of. It was a nice stone and has the names of all of our children on it. . . . And it is a historic marker for our family and a source of information for our children and the generations to follow."

  7. Another TF, one who is also older than I and also a retired missionary to Japan, wrote a lengthy e-mail containing the following comment:

    "A few months after [my first wife] died, my daughters and I went to the monument company and purchased a double monument for [her] and me. It is simple, with the 'kanji' [Chinese characters] for Love, Joy, and Peace on the front and with the names of our children on the back. After I am buried, my date of death will be added. I am glad that the monument is already there."

  8. I have not thought much about the stone, maybe because I am slightly younger. However, after a trip to San Antonio Museum of Art, I was struck by how much of the art was taken from burial sites. Egyptian, Greek and Roman statues, coffins, etc. for the most part referenced burial purposes. Add to that Chinese, Japanese, and other ancient peoples' "art", and it seemed about a third of the collection was burial related.

    That makes me wonder how long I should expect my memorial to actually mark the place I am buried. With the population size and growth, I also wonder if I should stake out a claim on a portion of land for eternity. Either due to population needs or anthropology, I expect some future inhabitant will decide I have had my spot long enough.

    Sorry if this is a downer to anyone.

  9. Like Dennis, I am struck by how ancient the practice of building your own monument is. Whether as grand as the Pyramid of Cheops, or as humble as graffiti, many of us seem to want to leave our mark on the world.

    Perhaps Leroy is reacting to how our modern American funeral practices have come to resemble those of the ancient Egyptians. Funerals, like weddings, have gone wherever the marketing gurus can profitably take us. Perhaps this will be something to contemplate while crossing the new Senator Christopher Bond Bridge when it is completed as a replacement for old Paseo.

  10. While your plans include cremation, I commend you for choosing to have a marker somewhere. I like the idea of loved ones having a place to go to remember you with flowers or simple meditation. This can be done anywhere, but having a final earthly resting place is helpful in my way of thinking.

    I also think it's helpful to those of future generations to have a stone with your name and birth/death dates on it.

    Whatever your wishes, be sure they are written out and accessible to those who will fulfill your wishes. It's one of the nicest gifts you can leave them so they don't have to guess what you may have wanted.