A History of Headstones

by MSO
Skull and crossbones engraved on tombstone

In Victorian times tombstones were meant to scare people into living a more righteous life.

The human race’s myriad of cultures has always marked the burial sites of their dead, since prehistoric markings of rocks and sticks were discovered. It was during these primitive times that it was believed that heavy rocks could be used to prevent the deceased from ascending from their rest. However,  the use of grave markers and tombstones as an identifier for individual burial plots is still a modern practice, one that has only grown to include a deeper breadth of symbolism to commemorate the dead.

Much like how the funeral industry is still a young practice compared to the length of human existence, so is the use of tombstones and grave markers. Cemeteries have also seen a kind of metamorphosis in the way graves were marked.

It was during the 1600s when the Puritans settled into the New World, and with them, they brought a religion that feared the afterlife.  Through their beliefs it was long held that only a chosen few, known simply as the “elect” would ascend to the heavens after death – meanwhile those known as sinners, had a less pleasant fate awaiting them in the hands of an angry God. To reflect these beliefs, colonial period grave markers reflected the images of a skull with or without wings, known as the “death head”. While these early markers were crudely made from wood or rough stone, exposure to the elements soon proved a new means of marking graves was needed.

As time went on, superstition became more prominent in the minds of people burying their dead, soon causing a metamorphosis in the way the dead were being remembered. With graveyards being found in churchyards and charnel houses, plagues and increasing death rates of a rising population saw many of these burial sites becoming more and more overcrowded.

It wasn’t long until a new concept of a planned and landscaped cemetery emerged. It was during this period in the 1800s that cemeteries during the Rural Cemetery Movement saw  graveyards adopt a more park-like setting, soon becoming a place where even the living could retreat.

Located in the outskirts of town, with rolling hills, flowers, trees and a natural botanical feature, these cemeteries became places for visitors to picnic, take carriage rides or go for quiet strolls. However, in Europe, particularly in old New England, the early monuments and grave stones that dominated the cemetery grounds were still of those frightening motifs of momento mori.

The idea was to frighten the living with the very idea of death, so as to give the living a more righteous life from seeing the images of decay and horror on the markers of the dead. But as the 1800s neared an end, so did the depictions of eonian damnation, soon replaced with scenes of eternal peace.

It wouldn’t be long before grave markers, monuments and tombs became not just a skilled craft, but also an art form, practiced by brick layers and masons, just as cabinet makers and carpenters tended to the grave undertaking of preparing the dead for burial.  But as the demand became greater, companies soon formed to meet the increasing needs of this new trade.

Stone work companies soon formed all over the country, particularly in Vermont, where a large supply of granite was already available. Likewise, many stones and monuments were carved and cut in Vermont, often done by Scottish and Italian immigrants, with the most delicate carving done by the Italians, as many of them were trained in Italy from childhood, going to school at night to be stone carvers.

Despite the thousands of statues and mausoleums that were created, only a few dozen carvers could handle the most intricate work.

By the end of the 1800s, graveyard art and mausoleums soon became increasingly more predominate, including London England’s Highgate Cemetery. The skull and crossbones tombstones that had once dominated the symbolism of graveyards had all but vanished as cemeteries became more survivor-friendly and heartrendingly melancholic. This was a time when maudlin excess and ornamentation was greatly in fashion with scantily dressed mourners carved from stone guarding entrances to tombs, while angels draped themselves over monuments in agonizing despair.

For years, funerals were extremely important to the Victorians, and with that importance came the requirement for fashionable graves and mausoleums. The excessive ornamentation turned the graveyards into a showplace for the rich and prestigious. Many of them became inundated with artwork and crowded with crypts as society folk attempted to outdo one another as carved flowers and life-size statues prevailed over the dreary landscape.

Realistic representations of the dead soon appeared, along with novelty monuments leading to a new movement known as cemetery tourism or taphophilia. As it was, the earliest American tombstones were copies of the old European tombstones decorated with the skulls and crossbones, but as tombstone art began to grow more sentimental, carvings on the stone soon took on a representation of the grief of a family as well as creating a statement more about the life of our ancestors than fear-mongering death.

Because of this new shift away from momento mori, the plainest of illustrations and iconography took on new significances to symbolize both death and life. From angels, who acted as emissaries between this world and the next to the carvings and engravings of animals, plants and objects.

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