The official definition of “gravestone” is ‘a stone placed on a burial plot which is often inscribed in order to mark the person or persons who are buried there’. Gravestones can also be known as grave markers, headstones, and tombstones, and more recently monuments and memorials. In earlier times, there were no community cemeteries such as there are today. Rather, people had burial plots near their family homes. These can still be seen today and are even still used by some families, so long as they still own the ancestral land. Visiting these small family cemeteries allows one to see the evolution of gravestones.
The term gravestone emerged from a Jewish custom in which the visitors to a grave used to place stones at the head as a way to honor the deceased. This custom, in turn, was inspired from an incident wherein a Jew broke the Sabbath in order to write a note so as solve a crime. Later, he felt guilty for the act, even though it was necessary. After thorough contemplation of the incident, he decided that his grave should be ‘stoned’ after his death. So, the tradition of placing stones on a grave became popular thereafter.
The earlier graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood. These items were placed on top of the grave apparently as a way to keep the dead from rising. Typically even the wooden markers would be inscribed with the deceased’s name, age and year of death. However, some only included a name, while others were not inscribed at all.
As churchyard burials gradually evolved, large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890) replaced the random rocks or wood used previously. The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable. Many of the slate gravestones are now unreadable due to the elements wearing the rock down until it was even with the shallow inscriptions.
As public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. Thus, they started engraving the headstones with a small epitaph or a few words about the deceased. Some of the deceased would even instruct those who would survive them of what exactly they wished to be included on their gravestone. In addition, they bore the identifying details that had been included on the original gravestones: the date of birth, the date of death and the full name of the departed. The greatest advantage of this tradition is that by reading the inscription on a gravestone, one can derive information which is vital to tracing his or her family history.
The Victorian era (1837-1901) greatly emphasized customs and practices associated with death. So, the period gave birth to elaborate tombstones and grave markers. The cemeteries appeared more like parks as they had such lavish and decorated gravestones, resembling statues rather than the traditional gravestones. It was during this time that the inclusion of sculptured designs, artwork and symbols became popular. These symbols denoted religious beliefs, social class, occupation, and several other aspects of the life of the deceased and included:
• angels of death
• star of David
• the Dove
• Egyptian symbol Ankh
• Eye of Horus
• weeping willow tree
• maple leaf
• broken column
Unlike these symbols, which showed a respect and anticipation for death, most tombstone symbols from the Colonial period reflected fear of afterlife as they believed that only a few people would be allowed in the Heaven after death and the rest would be categorized as sinners.
Interestingly, in the 18th century, there emerged a short-lived burial practice of covering the graves with iron cages known as mortsafes. While there are many theories as to why this practice began, there is no real explanation. Most historians agree that fear of the departed returning to them as a vampire was likely a motivator for the placement of the mortsafes. This strange practice, though, died out by the end of the Victorian era.
The most popular materials for gravestones during this era were marble (1780-1930), granite (1860-untill date), iron, and wood. Earlier, gravestones were used only by the middle and upper classes. However, after the emergence of the new Protestant theology, even lower classes started using grave markers for commemorating the life of the departed loved.
Today, there are a large variety of gravestones one can choose from, although nearly every one is made of granite. Some cemeteries place strict limitations as to what type of gravestone can be placed in the cemetery. Typically, these limitations and restrictions are put in place for one of two reasons. Cemeteries which only allow flush markers to be installed do so in order to prevent the ground keeper from having to mow around each individual gravestone. With the flush markers, they can simply ride right over top of the gravestone, rather than having to mow and then use a weed eater. The cemeteries which are affiliated with religious organizations will often have limitations as well. Specifically with a Catholic cemetery, there are often only a few symbols allowed on a gravestone. These symbols will normally include a specific cross, praying hands, rosaries and other religious symbols. Typically, if a gravestone is installed with symbols which are not approved, the owner of the plot will be forced to remove the gravestone and replace it with one which meets the requirements.
However, if a gravestone is being placed in a family cemetery or a cemetery which does not have limitations, there are thousands of options as to what can be installed on the burial plot. Not only are there different shapes and sizes of monuments, there are a huge variety of colors as well. With the introduction of lasers, a photo can now be duplicated onto a gravestone, so that the deceased’s image will be forever remembered. Any poem or symbol can be laser etched or sandblasted onto the gravestone. A custom design can also be ordered from a manufacturer if one finds a monument company who deals directly with the manufacturer. Anything from a guitar to a butterfly can be seen in cemeteries.
It’s amazing how far gravestones have come since the 1500’s! Where do you think we’ll be in another 100 years? How will gravestones change will technology evolving so quickly? Let us know what you think!
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