Decorating The Grave Of A Loved One

Rules & Etiquette For Cemetery Visitation And Grave Decoration

Honoring the dead has always been an important aspect of human lives. We mourn their loss and cherish their memories through a variety of ways across countless cultures. We hold memorials and wakes. We plan elaborate funerals. We even practice mourning through our behaviors and the way we dress. For many, especially in the United States, one of our preferred ways is through the decoration of graves with flowers, wreaths, or other symbolic trinkets and gifts that help memorialize who they were in life.

In this article, we will explore the many ways you can decorate the grave of a loved one, including the most common and more unusual ways to make your cemetery visit special. We will also teach you the best ways to create and maintain your very own graveside memorial. Finally, we will touch on basic cemetery etiquette and some do's and don'ts for families.

Why We Decorate Graves

Humanity has a long history of decorating gravesites. It’s common practice today for many cultures around the world to place significant items on or around a loved one’s headstone or memorial plaque.

The earliest recorded instances of grave decoration date back to the Ancient Greeks around 2000 years ago. They practiced a rite called “Zoai” which involved leaving flowers on the graves of fallen warriors.

If those flowers took root, they interpreted it as those warriors finding peace and happiness on the other side. Romans laid flowers over the graves of fallen warriors during the festival of Parentalia (Days of the Fathers) – and eight-day long festival – by family and friends of the dead.

Roman Parentalia

In America, the tradition gained prominence after the death of Abraham Lincoln. As the training carrying his remains through the country traveled through various cities, it stopped in several locations to allow citizens to pay their respects. Many brought giant bouquets, trinkets, and odd decorations to lay near the casket.

Following his funeral, people around the country began placing flowers on graves of soldiers that had died in the Civil War. In 1886, Union General John Alexander Logan proclaimed May 30th as the official day for decorating soldiers' graves with flowers. Eventually, it became the holiday we today know as Memorial Day.

Today, we continue the tradition in our own lives on a more personal level. We decorate the graves of our loved ones and family members because we want to memorialize them even after they are gone.

Decoration brings a level of personalization to their final resting place, making their grave a more comfortable place to visit when we need it most. Gravesite visitations are an integral aspect of the grieving process for those of us left behind after a person dies.

By providing a well-maintained, personalized space around the grave, we give ourselves a special place to grieve. It allows us to spend time with the deceased even after they are gone.

Most Common Grave Decorations

Sometimes, things are classic for a reason, and you can never go wrong with a classic. These are some of the most time-honored kinds of decorations you may want to consider for your loved one’s graveside memorial.

FRESH FLOWERS

Leaving fresh flowers on gravesites is a timeless, classic way to decorate a grave. As we’ve discussed above, they have been used extensively throughout history. Flowers are beautiful, vibrant, and add color and life to any cemetery plot.

If you’ve chosen a flat grave marker, many of those come with a built-in vase to place flowers in that does not add unsecured décor to the cemetery. Many cemeteries may also let you place a small plant on the grave as an alternative.

There is no right or wrong answer for choosing flowers to decorating a grave and it's okay for families to consider other factors when making their selection. Don't feel as if you have to go with the standard carnations and roses when you really would prefer alternative flowers.

So what are some options for other flowers? How do families know what to look for? We have some ideas to help with making your selection!

The Deceased's Preference

Some people have strong opinions on flowers. You will want to keep that in mind when choosing what to put on the grave.

What sorts of colors or flowers did they love in life? What did they consider overdone or even dislike? Choosing something for their tastes, even now, adds more meaning to the display. You may want to forego the standard carnations or roses in favor of their beloved lilies or lilacs.

Consider The Seasons

What time of the year is it? That information may inform what kind of flowers will look best at the gravesite.

If you have any interest in color coordinating with the seasons, you will want to choose bright colors for spring and summer while considering darker, russet hues for the fall. Seasonal flowers are most likely the freshest available as well.

Keeping Flowers Fresh

Many cemeteries have strict rules about the maintenance and longevity of living floral arrangements. They may clean flowers off weekly or monthly, depending on their policies.

It is common practice for groundskeepers to remove wilted flowers or other foliage from the grave before it can be seen as disruptive to other mourners. You may want to plan your visit accordingly.

ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS

Some cemeteries do not allow fresh flowers to be placed on graves. This can be due to cleanliness, maintenance concerns, or perhaps other policies in place. If that is the case, they usually allow silk flower arrangements instead.

While they are not always as preferred as fresh flowers, they are also more durable and last longer. Artificial flowers may fade over time and will eventually need to be replaced.

However, they are an economic option, especially if you aren’t able to visit the gravesite weekly or even months due to geographic distance or any other factor.

CANDLES

For many Christians, leaving candles on graves is a symbol of faith in the resurrection and promise of eternal life granted by the Christian God. Practice for centuries, this tradition is still prevalent in modern cemeteries around the world.

On the traditional Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos (commonly known in the US as Day of the Dead), families celebrate by placing candles on the graves of their loved ones as part of the ofrenda. These small altars are constructed in cemeteries to honor the dead and celebrate their life. It is a way to connect with deceased loved ones.

But before you place a candle on your loved one’s gravestone, it’s important to make sure that it does not violate any cemetery rules. You may find that you’ll need to make sure the candles are not enclosed in glass or left burning unattended. More stringent rules might prohibit the use of open flame on the grounds.

Dia de Los Muertos

HANDWRITTEN NOTES

Writing letters to those who have passed is a time-honored tradition. It helps us maintain our connection to the person and gives us an avenue of communication that, while may not come close to what we once had, can still be meaningful and fulfilling in its own way. It helps us work through grief and loss by putting those emotions to the page and committing them in a way we can revisit and giving words to our pain.

While we find solace in the act of writing these letters and notes to our loved ones, we can also find further healing in bringing them their final resting place. You can read your note on-site or if that feels too personal, you can leave it there as a token on the grave or headstone itself.

If you find that you aren’t the type to journal or write lengthy letters, you can bring cards instead. Holidays and birthdays are perfect occasions for those, as you can include a small note on them to commemorate the day.

PHOTOGRAPHS

As the saying goes, a photograph is worth a thousand words. They are memories frozen in time, each distilled as a perfect moment we can look back on and cherish. It’s no surprise that we use them so frequently to honor the memory of our deceased loved ones.

Today, it’s very common for mourners to leave photographs and pictures on gravestones as keepsakes for their loved ones. You may want to leave a photo of your wedding at the grave of a parent who has passed or leave a picture the grandkids drew for grandma or grandpa.

Instead of leaving a traditional photo frame, you may want to have the pictures laminated. This will keep them from fading in the elements. Many specialized frames can be attached securely to stone and can survive to be outside for long periods of time.

If you're concerned about the photo lasting through the elements even after lamination, you could consider having a Memorial Portrait made for the deceased. In this process, you choose and upload a photo of your loved one. It is then recreated as a larger image with the texture and depth resembling that of a brushstroke on an oil painting.

PHOTO ENGRAVED PENDANT

If a paper photograph isn’t as durable or permanent as you might like, you can explore other avenues of decoration for grave decorations. One that might appeal to you is having a small pendant custom engraved with an image of your loved one on it.

These small, personalized keepsakes are wonderful to wear, cherish, or even display on headstones or gravesites so you can remember your loved one at the moment that image was captured.

Custom photo engraved jewelry comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, including everything from crosses, hearts, squares, or a simple circle. The pendants are the perfect size for a modest headstone decoration, especially if you’d like to avoid any large displays. Additionally, it can be included in a larger floral pieces or as a stand-alone keepsake.

These photo pendants are created using a specialized laser process that replicates the highest detail of the images you provide into metal that will last forever. You can choose between a simple, etched black and white grayscale design to a full-colored rendition that brings more brightness to a graveside visit.

If you’d like to add something a little unconventional to your next cemetery visit, that might be just what you’re looking for!

Creative Ways To Decorate A Grave

While flowers are the most common decoration in most cemeteries, they aren’t the only items you can leave. We’ve covered many of the basic decorations above. Now it’s time for some of the out-of-the-box selections.

In this section, we’ll show you some of the more original, distinctly unique ways to honor your loved one’s final resting place. You may find something outside the norm speaks to you – and your memory – the most!

SOLAR LIGHTS

As candles may not always be a practical (or allowed) option in public cemeteries, there is a growing trend to install solar lights at the gravesite instead. These take many forms.

Some can be attached to the grave directly. Others are installed into the ground near the grave to brighten the area. They come in many shapes – crosses, angels, and other colored memorial housings – or mounted gravestone floodlights that illuminate the grave even at night.

You can even install small solar-powered LED candles around the grave as a safe alternative to open flame.

SPECIAL ROCKS & STONES

Placing small stones atop a grave or headstone is a common Jewish practice thought to keep the soul down on earth. Many still do it today, as it brings comfort and acts as a small memorial to the deceased.

Since prehistory times, mourners have created cairns – man-made piles of stones – to mark gravesites, especially in the British Isles. This tradition lives on in many forms today in memorial stones; often people will have messages engraved on smaller stones or rocks and leave them at the base of the grave.

These can be anything from Biblical verses, poems, or personalized messages for the deceased. Stones are more durable than flowers and last longer. They are a wonderful, practical alternative (or addition!) to them.

Homemade (or home-painted, as the case may be) rocks are just as welcome. If you have young ones, you can encourage them to paint images or messages on rocks. It’s a fun craft to do together and provides the chance to share memories of the deceased person as you create something for them together.

GRAVE BLANKET

If you live in a colder region, you many consider grave blankets to protect the grave from snow or extreme weather. Grave blankets are evergreen arrangements that cover the ground of a grave. They can be decorated with seasonal pieces like ribbons, stuffed animals, pinecones, or even holiday ornaments. Symbolically, you may want a grave blanket to keep the grave from getting “cold” in those winter months. It can bring comfort to you or other loved ones.

You can make your own grave blanket using chicken wire, greenery, and any decorative materials you may want to include.

STUFFED ANIMALS OR TOYS

Decorating a child’s grave is never something that will become easy. Leaving stuffed animals at the grave of a child is common, with teddy bears or bunnies being the most often used.

Sometimes, children leave these tokens on the graves of a parent, sibling, or other loved one as well. It can be a way to leave a piece of themselves and keep their connection with the deceased strong.

Even grown children may leave stuffed animals at the graves of their parents or grandparents. These may be even more meaningful if the person collected stuffed objects or certain types of toys. You could even leave a small piece of a larger item.

FLAGS

Leaving a flag comes with a caveat – only small ones. It is quite common to see American flags on graves, especially for anyone who served in the military. However, these should always be small and unobtrusive.

For many, leaving a large flag out in the elements is seen as disrespectful to the stars and stripes. It’s even common to see state or local flags displayed as well as military flags denoting their branch of service, their rank, or any veteran status.

The flags don’t necessarily have to a patriotic display, either. If your loved one was a sports fan, it might be fitting to leave a small flag for their favorite team or league. You can even find flags for several popular hobbies like SCUBA diving or motorcycling. There are many options available.

HANDMADE SIGNS & PLAQUES

While polished, manufactured grave memorials are beautiful and always welcome, there is something to be said for handmade goods. Sometimes, making a handmade sign or small plaque to place in front of the grave or on it can be just as satisfying and, in many cases, more personal than other options.

You will want to laminate it and secure it firmly to the grave so it can last.

COINS

Coins have long been associated with graves and death. The ancient Greeks covered the eyes of the dead with coins meant to act as payment for the ferryman Charon who took souls to the afterlife.

The traditions in various forms today, as in many areas of the world (especially in parts of Latin America) it’s still considered good luck to leave coins atop graves.

One famous example of leaving coins on graves is the case of Ben Franklin’s grave. It’s a long-standing tradition for visitors to his headstone to leave a penny atop it. This is because the adage “a penny saved is a penny earned” is often attributed to Franklin.

Today, you may see coins on the veterans' graves. This is military tradition to leave a penny or other small coin on the gravesite of a veteran as a way to honor their service and their passing. If you knew they served in the military, you leave a penny. If you attended boot camp with that person, you leave a nickel. If you served with them, you leave a dime. If they died when you were with them, you leave a quarter.

What Not To Leave At A Graveside Memorials

Before you begin planning your perfect graveside memorial, you want to be aware of the items you should not leave as much as those you can. Many cemeteries have policies regarding what they allow on-site and, if you have any questions, you can always call in advance.

Here’s a list of the most frequently prohibited items for graveside decorations:

FREE-STANDING DECORATIONS

Make sure everything you leave is firmly secured in some fashion before you leave the site. This will keep it from blowing away in any wind or storms and help a tidy cemetery. Remember that proper maintenance on cemetery grounds includes frequent mowing, weeding, and other basic tasks. Leaving things around the grave that are not attached in any way can be difficult to maneuver around and may cause more issues for the groundskeepers.

GLASS ORNAMENTS & JARS

Do not leave anything glass on or at a gravesite. Glass items like ornaments, jars, or even picture frames can be difficult to secure properly to a headstone. This can lead them to be knocked over or even broken quite easily. Broken glass can become a potential hazard to other visitors – or their pets - if someone steps on a fragment or even sits on them unintentionally.

In many cases, this can include candles as well. If you do leave candles at a grave, make sure they are not in glass containers.

LARGE FLAGS

We mentioned flags earlier. However, we’d like to reiterate that, should you choose to include a flag as part of your decorations, make sure it is a small one. Large flags can be a distraction to other mourners, difficult to maintain and keep from flying away, and may cause issues for groundskeepers to dispose of when they become torn or tattered.

FENCING/BORDERS AROUND GRAVE

It can be appealing to create a more personal space around a loved one’s grave. You may want to mark the cemetery plot by placing a short decorative fence around the grave or the headstone. This is often against the cemetery policy. Again, this can be a hassle for grave maintenance. It can also become a hazard for other visitors who may have mobility issues to navigate the area.

When planning your cemetery visit, please be respectful of others and decorate accordingly! You’ll want them to do the same for you!

How To Create Safe & Secure Grave Decorations

Now that we’ve discussed what decorations to consider for your next visit – and which ones to avoid – it’s time to talk about the best ways to attach them to the headstone, gravestone, or cemetery plot that are safe, durable, and won’t violate any cemetery policies.

HOOKS

This is a great option for attaching larger decorations to the front of headstones.

Several retailers create wreath hangers that require an adhesive hook attached directly to the stone or one that hangs over the top of the headstone and hangs down over it. Both options will keep your arrangements where they should be and not swept away by wind or storms.


ADHESIVES

If you’d like to leave a photo or other keepsake attached to the front of the grave, you might want to look into headstone-safe adhesives to help you get the job done. We recommend exploring what monument supply companies have to offer, from basic single-use epoxy or a silicon rubber compound.

Avoid using any standard glues or 3M strips; they won’t last nearly as well as an industrial adhesive and may leave residue on the stone if they fall off. Small picture frames can easily be attached with a bit of adhesive and some careful positioning. You should also look into specialty-made ceramic photographs or frames designed to withstand the outdoors.


SADDLES

Another way to attach flora arrangements to headstones is a cemetery saddle. These are flower arrangements to sit atop a headstone by being attached – usually with floral Styrofoam – to a metal frame that hugs the sides of the headstone like a traditional saddle.

They are also called headstone sprays or headstone toppers, depending on how they are marketed.


ATTACHED VASES

When considering leaving flowers, flags, or other staked items in front of a grave, you will want to check the local cemetery guidelines for such items. If they do not allow loose items on top of graves, you can always invest in a cemetery flower vase made of bronze, granite, or marble that can be attached directly to a flat gravestone or on the corner of a headstone.

These permanent displays are perfect for holding flowers, flags, or other long trinkets. Depending on the shape, you can also deposit small notes, stones, or anything you’d like in the base.

When To Decorate A Gravesite

There isn’t a set timeline for grave decoration. You should be able to add or change things as often as you would like. However, you should reach out to the cemetery to see if they have any guidelines for the length of time decorations can stay up.

You may find that certain items – like flowers or biodegradable decorations – are removed after a certain time once they begin wilting or showing signs of decay. This is standard practice for some cemeteries, but others do not remove any items from graves.

This means you’ll want to plan your trips accordingly if you’d like to avoid leaving older decorations for an extended period of time or replace fresh flowers.

Seasonal Decorating

Decorating gravesites seasonally is also a popular practice. Perhaps you’ve always celebrated big holidays as a family. Or maybe your loved one may have had a favorite season or holiday they loved above all things. There’s no reason to stop the tradition, especially if you feel strongly about gravesite upkeep.

There are many options available. The most obvious is using a grave blanket for the winter months. You could select themed flower arrangements to reflect the holiday season (from red roses on Valentine's Day or a fresh holly wreath around Christmas).

Perhaps a small pumpkin would be a nice addition as autumn begins. Even attaching a small cross or statue to the headstone for Easter add small decorative touches that help create a meaningful display.

Special Occasion Decorating

You can also decorate graves specifically for birthdays, anniversaries, or other big events in the person’s life. In this case, you may want to find something that adds a more personal touch to the graves. Anything from specific colors or even small trinkets that remind you of the date or something they loved in life.

How To Maintain The Gravesite

There may be a question of who maintains individual graves in a cemetery. Much of that depends on the rules and regulations you should already be aware of once you – or whoever was responsible – purchased the plot. Many times, families are responsible for the maintenance of the grave outside of normal groundskeeping activities like mowing or security. If you do need to clean the grave, you’ll want to come prepared to do so regularly.

TO CLEAN THE GRAVESITE

Use small grass cutters to trim the grass around the headstone or grave marker. For larger plots, a weed trimmer can be used if necessary. Small grass cutters are a more preferable option as they are less likely to cause any damage to the gravesite.


A small, soft-bristle brush can be used to scrub out any dirt, moss, or grime that’s collected in any crevice on the stone.


Be gentle! A little warm water and some dish detergent is all that is needed to gently wipe away any dirt or debris on the surface of the headstone or grave marker. Never use harsh chemicals to clean the stone.

Basic Cemetery Etiquette

When visiting any cemetery, there are a set of basic rules you should follow. Most of the rules center around being respectful to others - both living and dead - while honoring the memory of those buried there. We’ve compiled a list of tips that will help you have the most successful trip to visit your loved one’s final resting place.

Be Respectful

Overall, this is the most important rule of any visitation. Treat any cemetery in the same manner as you might a church. While you don’t need to make it a solemn or mournful moment each time, you should be aware of the others around you. Make sure the ringer on your cell phone is silenced and keep your speaking voice low so it does not disturb others.

Watch Your Speed

This may be the most obvious etiquette tip we have to offer. Depending on where you are, you may drive through a cemetery to find the grave you are visiting, especially if the cemetery is large. Make sure you are driving slowly and carefully through the grounds. Many cemeteries have signs posted but if they do not, try not to exceed 10 MPH at any point. You may want to go even slower if you see a funeral or memorial service in the area.

Don't Litter

Make sure you clean up after yourself when you finish with your visit. This includes any trash, wrappers, cans, or even loose decorations that could end up scattered over the area. You don’t want to make more work for the groundskeepers or staff on-site, after all!

Keep An Eye On Children

We all know that kids can be a handful, especially if they are bored or anxious about a situation. Visiting a cemetery (especially for the first time) can be a very stressful time for them. However, bringing your children to the cemetery can be a great way to teach them about death.

With open discussion, it can alleviate some fears or questions about loss. Talk to your kids ahead of time. That way, they know what to expect and how they should behave. It may take a little work, but most children can take short trips to the cemetery while still being respectful.

Keep Off The Graves

It is disrespectful to walk over a gravesite or a headstone. If you are walking through the area, make sure you walk among the rows and not into them. You should also never lean against graves, sit on them, or touch any of the decorations adorning them. If the headstone is older, it could be damaged or broken by your actions.

In short, treat all other graves just as respectfully as you would for your own loved ones.

Don't Take Photos Of Others

If you are visiting while others are nearby, be mindful of any photos you take. Don’t photograph other mourners without their permission. Don’t take photos of funerals going on around you. If you do photograph graves, make sure you aren’t anyone in the background of your shots.

Take Your Time

There’s no rush when planning a graveside visit. You can spend as much – or as little – time there as you’d like. You may want to go by to for a short visit to place a decoration or say a prayer. Alternatively, you may want to spend an afternoon there. You can plan a picnic in a nearby area, spread out a blanket to read a book, or just sit and meditate.

As long as you’re courteous to those around you, you can visit for as long as you’d like (within the proper hours).

Be Respectful Of Other Mourners

Most visitors to cemeteries prefer privacy for mourning. It’s rude to approach or speak with other visitors to a cemetery (unless, of course, you know them or are visiting the same location). If any funerals or other events are happening, make sure to keep a respectful distance from them and try not to get in the way of any processions.

Only Visit During Open Hours

Cemeteries often have official visitation hours and, if they have one, they will close the gate at the end of the day. It’s also disrespectful to stay on the grounds after dark or well into the night. There may be employees or gatekeepers who cannot leave until the cemetery is empty, so be respectful of their time and try not to worry or startle them.

Check Pet Policies

Different cemeteries have different policies when it comes to allowing pets on the premises. Some are very permission and may just require you to pick up after them. For others, you may find that you need to keep your pet on a leash for the entire visit. You should also prepare for the possibility they might not allow any pets at all.

Questions? Call Ahead!

Many cemeteries will have rules posted either on the grounds or online. If you have any questions, you should check ahead before you go. You should be able to call the cemetery if you are uncertain about any of their policies.

The best rule of thumb for any visit is to simply apply the classic adage of treating others how you’d like to be treated.

Honoring Their Memory By Decorating Their Resting Place

One of the best ways to find to create a memorable cemetery visit is by including as much of the family as possible. If you are planning to decorate a grave, be sure to communicate with other family members and tell them about your plans. They will also need to know about the rules and etiquette so everyone can enjoy leaving flowers or personal items.

Consider including other family members that are interested in the care and maintenance of the gravesite so that the task doesn’t fall on just one person and everyone can feel they are caring for their deceased loved one’s final resting place.

While it’s a natural part of the grieving process and an important way to feel connected to those who have passed, visiting the cemetery can be difficult and often filled with complex emotions. The best thing you can do for yourself – and your remaining loved ones – is to have a plan before you go.

Cemetery visits and headstone decoration are also rewarding experiences that can bring you peace, closure, and ultimately help you show respect and love to loved ones long after they have passed.

Helpful reading:

A Complete Guide To Funeral & Burial Traditions

Grief and Grieving: Healing After Loss Through the Grieving Process

Cremation Vs Burial: Know The Facts

September 17, 2020 by Frances Kay