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Captain Andrew Drake (1684-1743) sandstone tombstone from the Stelton Baptist Church Cemetery in Edison, New Jersey

A headstone, tombstone, or gravestone is a marker, normally carved from stone, placed over or next to the site of a burial in a cemetery or elsewhere.

Contents

Use

Jarvis Andrew Lattin (1853-1941) granite tombstone from Powell Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York

The stele, as they are called in an archaeological context, is one of the oldest forms of funerary art. Originally, a tombstone was the stone lid of a stone coffin, or the coffin itself, and a gravestone was the stone slab that was laid over a grave. Now all three terms are also used for markers placed at the head of the grave. Originally graves in the 1700s also contained footstones to demarcate the foot end of the grave. Footstones were rarely carved with more than the deceased's initials and year of death, and many cemeteries and churchyards have removed them to make cutting the grass easier. Note however that in many UK cemeteries the principal, and indeed only, marker is placed at the foot of the grave.

Graves and any related memorials are a focus for mourning and remembrance. The names of relatives are often added to a gravestone over the years, so that one marker may chronicle the passing of an entire family spread over decades. Since gravestones and a plot in a cemetery or churchyard cost money, they are also a symbol of wealth or prominence in a community. Some gravestones were even commissioned and erected to their own memory by people who were still living, as a testament to their wealth and status. In a Christian context, the very wealthy often erected elaborate memorials within churches rather than having simply external gravestones.

Crematoria frequently offer similar alternatives for families who do not have a grave to mark, but who want a focus for their mourning and for remembrance. Carved or cast commemorative plaques inside the crematorium for example may serve this purpose.

Materials

A cemetery may follow national codes of practice or independently prescribe the size and use of certain materials, especially if in a conservation area. Some may limit the placing of a wooden memorial to six months after burial, after which a more permanent memorial should be placed. Others may require stones to be of a certain shape or position to facilitate grass-cutting by machines, or hand-held cutters. Headstones prepared from granite, marble and other kinds of stone are usually created, installed and repaired by monumental masons. Cemeteries require regular inspection and maintenance, as stones may settle, topple and, on rare occasions, fall and injure people [1]; or graves may simply become overgrown and their markers lost or vandalised.

Restoration is a specialised job for a monumental mason; even the removal of overgrowth needs care to avoid damaging the carving. For example, ivy should only be cut at the base roots and left to naturally die off, and never pulled off forcefully.

Granite tombstone of Josiah Leavitt (1679–1717), Hingham Center Cemetery, Hingham, Plymouth County, Massachusetts

Most types of building materials have been used at some time as markers. The more usual materials include:

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Stone

  • Fieldstones. The earliest markers for graves were natural fieldstone, some unmarked and others decorated or incised using a metal awl. Typical motifs for the carving included a symbol and the deceased's name and age.
  • Granite. Granite is a hard stone and requires skill to carve by hand. Modern methods of carving include using computer-controlled rotary bits and sandblasting over a rubber stencil. Leaving the letters, numbers and emblems exposed on the stone, the blaster can create virtually any kind of artwork or epitaph.
  • Marble and limestone. Both limestone and marble take carving well. Marble is a recrystallised form of limestone. Both marble and limestone slowly dissolve when exposed to the mild acid in rainwater which can make inscriptions unreadable over time. Portland stone was a type of limestone commonly used in England; after weathering the fossiliferous deposits tend to be revealed on the surface. Marble became a popular material from the early 1800s although its extra cost limited its appeal.
  • Sandstone. Sandstone is durable yet soft enough to carve easily. Some sandstone markers are so well preserved that individual chisel marks can be discerned in the carving, while others have delaminated and crumbled into dust. Delamination occurs when moisture gets between the layers that make up the sandstone. As it freezes and expands the layers flake off. In the 1600s sandstone replaced fieldstones in Colonial America. Yorkstone was a common sandstone material used in England.
  • Slate. Slate can have a pleasing texture but is slightly porous and prone to delamination. It takes lettering well, often highlighted with white paint or gilding.
Sofi Hamid Cemetery in Azerbaijan

Metal, wood and plants

  • Iron. Iron grave markers and decorations were popular during the Victorian era in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, often being produced by specialist foundries or the local blacksmith. Cast iron headstones have lasted for generations while wrought ironwork often only survives in a rusted or eroded state.
  • White bronze. Actually sand cast zinc, but called white bronze for marketing purposes. Almost all, if not all, zinc grave markers were made by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, CT, between 1874 and 1914. They are in cemeteries of the period all across the U. S. and Canada. They were sold as more durable than marble, about 1/3 less expensive and progressive.
  • Wood. This was a popular material during the Georgian and Victorian era, and almost certainly before, in Great Britain and elsewhere. Some could be very ornate, although few survive beyond 50-100 years due to natural decomposition.
  • Planting. Trees or shrubs, particularly roses, may be planted, especially to mark the location of ashes. This may be accompanied by a small inscribed metal or wooden marker.


Inscriptions

Gravestone showing death date of 1639, Wormshill.
HIS LAST MESSAGE: NO MORE WARS FOR ME - A headstone in the Jerusalem British World War I Cemetery on Mount Scopus

Markers usually bear inscriptions: epitaphs in praise of the deceased or quotations from religious texts, such as "requiescat in pace". In a few instances the inscription is in the form of a plea, admonishment, testament of faith, claim to fame or even a curse — William Shakespeare's inscription famously declares;

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosèd here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Or a warning about Mortality, such as this Persian poetry carved on an ancient tombstone in the Tajiki capital of Dushanbe.[2] [3]

I heard that mighty Jamshed the King
Carved on a stone near a spring of water these words:
"Many – like us – sat here by this spring
And left this life in the blink of an eye.
We captured the whole world through our courage and strength,
Yet could take nothing with us to our grave."

Or a simpler warning of inevitability of death:

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
Hebrew inscriptions on gravestones in Prague.

The information on the headstone generally includes the name of the deceased and their date of birth and death. Such information can be useful to genealogists and local historians. Larger cemeteries may require a discrete reference code as well to help accurately fix the location for maintenance. The cemetery owner, church, or, as in the UK, national guidelines might encourage the use of 'tasteful' and accurate wording in inscriptions.

Headstone engravers faced their own "Year 2000 problem" when still-living people, as many as 500,000 in the United States alone, pre-purchased headstones with pre-carved death dates beginning 19–.[4]

Bas-relief carvings of a religious nature or of a profile of the deceased can be seen on headstones dating from before the 1800s. Since the invention of photography, a gravestone might include a framed photograph or cameo of the deceased; photographic images or artwork (showing the loved one, or some other image relevant to their life, interests or achievements) are sometimes now engraved onto smooth stone surfaces.

Some headstones use lettering made of white metal fixed into the stone, which is easy to read but can be damaged by ivy or frost. Deep carvings on a hard-wearing stone may weather many centuries exposed in graveyards and still remain legible. Those which are fixed on the inside of churches, on the walls or on the floor (frequently as near to the altar as possible) may last much longer: such memorials were often embellished with a monumental brass.

PETA’s grave marker protest

Marker inscriptions have also been used for political purposes, such as the grave marker installed in January 2008 at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky by Mathew Prescott, an employee of PETA. The grave marker is located near the grave of KFC founder Harland Sanders and bears the acrostic message “KFC tortures birds.” [5] The group placed its grave marker to promote its contention that KFC is cruel to chickens.

Form and decoration

Elaborately carved grave slab at Shebbear (Devon, England) showing a skull sprouting flowering shoots, as a symbol of resurrection
Marble headstone of a couple buried together in Singapore, showing an arched emblem, signifying the reunification with one's partner in heaven. Within the arch is a statue of Jesus Christ
Unconventional tombstone in the Cemetery Park of the "Freireligiöse Gemeinde" in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg. Tree stump headstones in U.S. cemeteries are often associated with fraternal organization Woodmen of the World.

Gravestones may be simple upright slabs with semi-circular, rounded, gabled, pointed-arched, pedimental, square or other shaped tops. During the 18th century, they were often decorated with memento mori (symbolic reminders of death) such as skulls or winged skulls, winged cherub heads, heavenly crowns, urns or the picks and shovels of the grave digger. Somewhat unusual were more elaborate allegorical figures, such as Old Father Time, or emblems of trade or status, or even some event from the life of the deceased (particularly how they died). Later in the same century, large tomb chests or smaller coped chests were commonly used by the gentry as a means of commemorating a number of members of the same family. In the 19th century, headstone styles became very diverse, ranging from plain to highly decorated. They might be replaced by more elaborately carved markers, such as crosses or angels. Simple curb surrounds, sometimes filled with glass chippings, were popular during the mid-20th century.

Some form of simple decoration is once more popular. Special emblems on tombstones indicate several familiar themes in many faiths. Some examples are:

Greek letters might also be used:

  • αω (alpha and omega) - The beginning and the end
  • χρ (chi rho) - The first letters spelling the name of Christ
  • IHS - Stylised version of iota-eta-sigma, a Greek abbreviation of Jesus

Safety

An example of how old broken gravestones are reused, in this case as paving

Over time a headstone may settle or its fixings weaken. After several instances where unstable stones have fallen in dangerous circumstances, some burial authorities "topple test" headstones by firm pressure to check for stability. They may then tape them off or flatten them.

This procedure has proved controversial in the UK, where an authorities' duty of care to protect visitors is complicated because it often does not have any ownership rights over the dangerous marker. Authorities that have knocked over stones during testing or have unilaterally lifted and laid flat any potentially hazardous stones have been criticised, after grieving relatives have discovered that their relatives' marker has been moved.[6] Since 2007 Consistory Court and local authority guidance now restricts the force used in a topple test and requires an authority to consult relatives before moving a stone. In addition, before laying a stone flat, it must be recorded for posterity.[7][8]

Gallery

See also

Matthew Noble's gravestone, Brompton Cemetery, London

External links

References


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