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Roger Weller, geology instructor

by Claire McKee
Physical Geology
Fall 2015
Gravestones: Memorial or More?

Gravestones: Memorial or More?

     The Gravestones you see today come in a large variety of shapes and sizes, from small blocks or slabs of granite with a name and date to huge statues with long Epitaphs, and every imaginable thing in between. But is this how they always were? Not quite

     Today, gravestones are used as a way to remember a lost loved one for generations to come. But they originally started as a barrier, one that was thought to keep the dead from rising again. And you could only have one if you were upper class or, if you were lucky, upper middle class. If you were anywhere below that spectrum, your loved ones would still be buried, and probably remembered by your family and some close friends, you just wouldn’t have a proper marker… or the protection that was thought to come with it.

     How would you like to have grandma and grandpa buried beside your child’s swing set? Maybe Aunt Petunia and Uncle Rupert under the tree house? That’s how it was in the early 18 hundreds, although I can’t say for sure children had swing sets or tree houses back then. These were known as family plots, and were creepy enough to become the backdrop of many scary movies. 

     These gravestones were not nearly as fancy as the ones you will find today. In fact, by today’s standards they wouldn’t even be considered “proper” gravestones. They were usually made from rough stones, rocks, or even wood, but apparently they did the job. They didn’t have any epitaphs either, typically only bearing the name and date of death of the person, if even that. Not much to be remembered by but word of mouth. Let’s hope the family liked grandma and grandpa, or the remembrance might not be that kind.

     These personal family plots soon came to be replaced by church yard burials. These headstones were usually made from slate or sandstone with very shallow engravings, just deep enough to read, they also gained a more uniform shape, becoming large and square-shaped. But you had to do a little more work to end up in one of these “sacred burial plots” than just being a part of the family, and if you died alone and no one knew how it happened, you might not get in; for fear that you offed yourself. This was not only frowned upon but also thought to be a sin, hints why you couldn’t be put in sacred ground. Although these church yards were used a lot there were still some rich snobby types who thought it much more “classy” to be buried in the family plot. Thus is became a fad amongst the rich and fancy to have your loved ones buried in The Family Plot.

     Public cemeteries didn’t come into existence until the 19th century. This is when people started giving much more importance to gravestones, rather than just using them to show the name of who was buried and when they had died, they were now used as a “permanent” way to memorialize loved ones. People would now engrave a sort epitaph or a couple of words about the dearly departed and dates of birth as well as death to give future generations a clearer picture of just who this person was. For the most part this worked marvelously; you just had to be a bit picky about what material you used to remember Aunt Prudence. This would cost a little bit more money, but everyone knew that deer old Aunt P was worth it… right?

     The Victorian era was when we started to see the more elaborate gravestones come into play. Apparently these people were a little obsessed with the idea of death, or maybe just really scared of it. As many of the statues in the graveyards of this time were used to protect the living from anything from the “other side” meaning things like the reaper and death eaters. Many of the the elaborate statues were made from wood or cast iron, other popular materials included marble, which tends to hold up to the weather better than much anything else and granite, which also holds up to the weather rather well. The gravestones themselves were also ornately decorated, as it was thought that the more the grave was decorated, the more likely the person would be remembered. The amount of decorations as well as their size and grandeur was also a sign of wealth. After all, if you had to be buried next to those of lower class, you wanted to stand out, lest someone mistake your grave as just another peasant.

     These graveyards looked almost like parks because of the sheer number of elaborate carvings and decorations including, but not limited to, the angel of death, the Star of David, doves, and Egyptian symbols having to do with death or the afterlife. They also had many to do with and still others to resemble luck and strength. Many of this artwork symbolized things such as religion, social class, occupation, and many other things about the loved one’s life.

Random food for thought: The term gravestone, by the way, 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. Thus, after thorough contemplation, he decided that his grave should be ‘stoned’ after his death. So, the tradition of placing stones on a grave became popular.

The sad fact is, most of the graves in the older days didn’t have much to say about the one who was buried. Not because they were not loved or remembered, but merely because they didn’t live long enough to achieve much of anything other than being a son or daughter. There was a much higher infant and child mortality rate as well as an astounding number of “still births” or children born already dead.