How to Change A Cemetery Grave Marker

There are plenty of reasons why a family (or even just a single family member) may have a need to change a cemetery grave marker on a loved one’s burial site. Probably the most common is a simple reason: the grave marker was manufactured and engraved before a death, and the death date now needs to be added. But there are many other reasons that people have for changing a grave marker. Perhaps some relevant information has been uncovered posthumously. Or maybe an error has been discovered. Or, maybe, the headstone has been damaged by the weather or by vandalism, and its engraving has to be repaired.

As we will see in this article, changing a cemetery grave marker is a relatively simple process no matter what the need. But there are some other matters involved that may make the project more complicated than one may assume. We hope this article proves helpful on those issues.

Make Sure You Have Legal Authority For The Change

The first matter to consider when the need arises to change a grave marker is one that is often overlooked: do you have the legal authority to change a cemetery grave marker? The deceased’s will comes into play in this issue. The cemetery itself, some may be surprised to learn, usually has very limited jurisdiction in this matter.

Families may need to change an existing grave marker for many reasons.

Legally speaking, the only person who has authority to order a change a grave marker is the executor named in the deceased’s will. This is true, courts have held, even in cases in which the executor did not buy the grave marker originally or contract the engraving to be done. Many cases have been documented in which family members have sued one another over a decision to change a grave marker, and the courts have routinely decided that the executor, as listed in the deceased’s will, is the only person authorized for this job. These rulings have even resulted in family members being required by courts to restore original words that they have changed on a headstone. The only instances in which ownership of a grave marker – as evidenced by a proof of purchase receipt – has been considered in determining authority for a grave marker change are those in which the deceased left no will or in which a will has never been formally approved by a court in a probate process. In those cases, the owner of a headstone – in other words, the person who contracted it to be manufactured – is given full authority by court decisions.

To be sure, there have been a handful of cases in which family squabbles have caused death dates to remain missing from a headstone for decades after a person’s death. In these cases, the deceased purchased the headstone for himself while he was alive but did not leave a will (or did not leave clear instructions in a will) for how the grave marker should be handled. In many cases, family members can easily get past such bureaucratic matters by simply agreeing informally as to what should be done. But, then again, long standing family rivalries can fester in cases such as this, and keep a grave marker from being properly updated for much longer than is probably necessary.

A final important note on this topic: a cemetery or the original manufacturer usually has no authority to change or order a change to the grave marker. One exception to this might be in cases in which an authorized change violates a cemetery’s policies. Many cemetery burial plot contracts will stipulate that the cemetery must be consulted before any change can be made. In these cases, the cemetery might have legal authority to order than a change be undone (or, in other words, changed again).

Deciding Who Will Make the Change

It is important to make sure all decisions are made before changing an existing marker.

Once a decision has been made to change a cemetery grave marker, the next decision is who, exactly, will make the change. In cases in which the change is simply a matter of adding text or art to a bronze grave marker, the original manufacturer is just about the only choice. This is typically not something that can be done – with any reasonably acceptable results, anyway – by any other source. In cases of adding something to a cement or granite marker, just about any artisan who works with stone or cement sculptures can be contracted to do this. Experts strongly recommend against a novice trying to do this work himself, as most additions can be easily done on the grave site by anyone with even a modicum of experience. Because adding engraving to a stone or granite grave marker is so simple, an expert will usually not charge an extraordinary amount for this service. As with the very decision (discussed above) to change the cemetery grave marker, the decision on who to hire to make the change is very much left entirely to the person named as the deceased’s executor. It should be noted that, though many cemeteries require in their burial plot contracts that they be consulted on any decision to change a grave marker on their property, this authority cannot legally give them permission to dictate who, in fact, does the work. Any unsolicited suggestion by a cemetery for a person or company to make the change should be treated with suspicion. It is likely an illegal – or at least unethical – suggestion.

How to Make the Change on a Bronze Gravestone

As we mentioned above, making a change on a bronze grave marker typically involves making contact with the original manufacturer. In most cases the change that is requested is simple: just add the date of death, or maybe a simple logo, to the marker. In such cases, the manufacturer can usually ship to the customer a simple metal plate with the changed or added text. Then the customer can easily install the plate on the marker himself or herself using small screws (usually provided with the plate) and a standard screw driver. The manufacturer has to be consulted directly because the plate has to match the screw holes already installed on the headstone and, typically, only the manufacturer can produce plates to match those specifications.

In the event that the original manufacturer cannot be located, of course, a bronze grave marker can still be changed: it can simply be replaced with a new version that includes the new text. This can be a sizeable expense, however (a new bronze marker can cost up to $2,000 or more), and a $50 – $100 charge for a small bronze plate typically seems much more palatable for a family budget.

How to Make the Change on a Granite or Cement Grave Marker

It is not an uncommon sight to see work being preformed in a cemetery.

Making a change on a cement or granite grave marker simply involves an engraver traveling with his or her tools to the grave site itself and spending a few hours making the modifications. This is a relatively common sight on any cemetery, and most artisans who deal with grave markers are set up to do this work as a matter of routine for a very reasonable price (depending upon the complexity of the change that is requested, of course). A good artist can make just about any change a family may request blend into the original work in a manner that would make it difficult to guess that the newly added feature was never part of the original. Using modern laser techniques that would be mind boggling to the experts of just a few decades ago, today’s engravers can work great magic on just about any bit of text or graphic art that a customer may want to have changed. (Stone engravers have learned a lot from the world’s tattoo artists on this – and vice versa.) Among other things, engravers have changed male cherubs into females, and they have re-worked entire lines of text when a family decided to change an epitaph. Also, in at least one or two reported cases, a family has been able to hire a stone engraver to update the various logos of the United States military that often affixed to grave markers. Whereas it is perfectly acceptable to leave original logos in place for the ages, many families have a tradition of updating grave marker logos as often as the military updates them in modern use. It is fortunate that modern technology makes such a change not only possible, but also even practical.

Planning for a Change

In today’s modern world, many people plan their own headstones and have them installed above their very burial plot many years before their death. In such cases, the headstones will be left missing of the obvious: a date of death is not possible to include. And other features of a typical grave marker may end up being left off of a pre-ordered grave marker too. As we hope we have demonstrated in this article, this practice, while helpful for family members, can cause problems if it is not accompanied by explicit instructions, left in a will, for what to do upon the owner’s death. It seems likely that a person who would be considerate enough of his family to order and install his own grave marker before his death would also be inclined to make sure instructions for changing the marker are left, very clearly, in his or her will. But, in the event you are one of those who may not have thought to include instructions in the will, this article is written in the very hope that you will attend to that important piece of business soon.