It seems obvious to state, but losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things in life most people have to deal with. The sadness and stress can be so overwhelming, and that means it can be a difficult time to make decisions. That leads to my first suggestion when choosing a headstone to memorialize your loved one:
Take your time. The stone you choose is permanent, and it will be around for generations. That is a long time, so there is nothing that says you have to rush into making a decision while you are grieving. We have people who come in days after losing a loved one, and sometimes it is years.
Talk to the sexton at the cemetery. They will fill you in on any specific requirements for the section in which your loved one is buried. There can be dimension restrictions, concrete requirements and stone requirements, depending on the cemetery. Your monument company can also help you understand the cemetery regulations before you make a decision on the stone.
Visit the cemetery. By walking through the cemetery around where the headstone will be going you can get a feel for what you like and don't like from what other people have done. You will probably notice that many of the stones have a similar layout. It is okay to follow what other people have done in that regard, but there is also no right or wrong way to lay out the engraving on the stone.
Choose the stone. There are many different stone and color options available, and for the most part it is a personal preference as to what color and type of stone to go with (though it is important to check with the cemetery for any restrictions, as mentioned above). One suggestion would be to avoid darker colored stones if the cemetery has hard water coming through their sprinkler system. The calcium deposits left behind tend to show up more on darker stones, which means they require more maintenance over the years to keep them looking good.
Determine the layout. After looking at other samples and choosing the stone, it is time to figure out what goes on your stone. Your monument designer will help you with this, but it helps if you have a general idea of wording and any graphics that might add meaning to the stone. It is okay to be creative and unique here, as the stone should match the personality of the person it is for. There are certain things that are pretty common in headstone design, and it can look good to stick with the typical layouts, but don't hesitate to ask if you want to see something a little different.
Wait. In our fast-paced society, it seems like no one likes to wait, but the process of making a custom headstone can take some time. We try to keep our lead time from design approval to placement at 2-4 weeks if it is a stone that we have in stock, but custom ordered stones can require more time.
The bottom line to all of this is that, aside from the cemetery regulations, there are no hard rules for choosing a headstone. Many people opt for a traditional cut granite stone, but more and more people are using natural-shaped stones. Take your time, shop around, don't feel pressured and make sure you get exactly what you want.