The latest on worldwide trends in burials and grave markings
24 April 2015
Gravestones, also known as headstones and tombstones, are a special way of commemorating a loved one, and often their place of burial.
How gravestones have changed over time
The gravestone is popularly and traditionally used in religious burials, Christian, Jewish and Muslim among others. Before the 16th century, gravestones were only used by upper and middle classes. After protestant theology came into being (which recognised the worth of individuals), lower classes began to commemorate death with gravestones too. Gravestones hit a popularity high, surpassing previous options such as tombs and murals because of their inexpensive nature and thus began the tradition of marking every single grave of those who had passed away.
Over the years gravestones have been made from a variety of materials, including wood, marble, and iron. Some of the earliest gravestone markers were made from field stones, which are naturally occurring stones. They were placed at the site of the burial and were either unmarked or carved with a symbol and the deceased’s name and age.
As time went on, engravings would get more and more elaborate, with poems, words, and excerpts. These would mostly convey themes of rebirth or eternity, and would also represent the deceased and their life. In modern times the popularity of this has subsided, with the trend having gone full circle. Most stones now include only name, date and age though families often add a few meaningful words to represent their loved one.
Materials have gained and waned in popularity over time. Slate was occasionally used in the past, with the material reaching peak popularity in the late 17th century and into the 19th century. Around this time sandstone was also a popular material as it was rather durable and easy to carve. In the 19th century limestone and marble were the material of choice, though marble was an expensive option. During the Victorian era iron grave markers and headstones were popular. Cast iron headstones have lasted for generations, though wrought iron decorations have mostly rusted and eroded since their implementation.
Moving forward a few centuries to modern times, gravestones began to be made from granite as it’s a hard wearing stone. It required more skill to carve but luckily this is now usually done mechanically.
Symbolism changed over time on stones too, symbols regularly used in the 17th and 18th centuries tended to be skulls or similar morbid imagery, whereas as from the mid-18th century onward cherubs and angels were the most common symbols. Late 18th to early 19th century willows and urns were used as a sign of mourning and symbolism on gravestones. Nowadays there are little restrictions on what can be carved on your gravestone or plaque, with most people picking images that are special to them or that represent them as a person.