A headstone, tombstone or gravestone is a permanent marker, normally carved from stone, placed over or next to the site of a burial in a cemetery or elsewhere.
UseThe 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.
Most types of building materials have been used at some time as markers. The more usual materials include:
- 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 traditionally has required great 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.
- 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. Many cast iron headstones have lasted for generations while wrought ironwork often only survives in a rusted or eroded state.
- 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. Marble replaced sandstone as a popular material from the early 1800s.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 6 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. Cemeteries require regular inspection and maintenance, as stones may settle, topple and, on rare occasions, fall and injure people ; 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.
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 Harlan Sanders and bears the acrostic message “KFC tortures birds.” The group placed its grave marker to promote its contention that KFC is cruel to chickens.
Form and decoration
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 (called "death's heads"), 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:
- Anchor - Steadfast hope
- Arch - Rejoined with partner in Heaven
- Birds - The soul
- Cherub - Divine wisdom or justice
- Column - Noble life
- Broken column - Early death
- Conch shell - Wisdom
- Cross, anchor and Bible - Trials, victory and reward
- Crown - Reward and glory
- Dolphin - Salvation, bearer of souls to Heaven
- Dove - Purity, love and Holy Spirit
- Evergreen - Eternal life
- Garland - Victory over death
- Gourds - Deliverance from grief
- Hands - A relation or partnership (see Reference 3)
- Heart - Devotion
- Horseshoe - Protection against evil
- Hourglass - Time and its swift flight
- Ivy - Faithfulness, memory, and undying friendship
- Lamb - Innocence
- Laurel - Victory
- Lily - Purity and resurrection
- Mermaid - Dualism of Christ - fully God, fully man
- Oak - Strength
- Olive branch - Forgiveness, and peace
- Palms - Martyrdom, or victory over death
- Peacock - Eternal life
- Poppy - Eternal sleep
- Rooster - Awakening, courage and vigilance
- Shell - Birth and resurrection
- Star of David - The God
- Skeleton - Life's brevity
- Snake in a circle - Everlasting life in Heaven
- Swallow - Motherhood
- Broken sword - Life cut short
- Crossed swords - Life lost in battle
- Torch - Eternal life if upturned, death if extinguished
- Tree trunk - The beauty of life
- Triangle - Truth, equality and the trinity
- Shattered urn - Old age, mourning if draped
- Weeping willow - Mourning, grief
Greek letters might also be used:
Camp Butler National Cemetery Tatton Park, Cheshire, UK. 19th century gravestone in Boston, Massachusetts erected in memory of an Irishman born shortly before The Great Hunger
- World Burial Index Selection of photographs of interesting memorial inscriptions plus free surname search
- A Very Grave Matter old New England gravestones
- Historic Headstones Online Project to photograph and transcribe content from Historic Headstones
- Pennsylvania German Tombstones
- Gravestone Symbols from Spirited Ghost Hunting
- Old Headstones and Tombs displays a scattergram of the distribution of hands sculptures on headstones, and some remarkable and unique tombstones
- The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey includes gravestone imagery in the state of New Jersey
gravestone in Bulgarian: Надгробна плоча
gravestone in Catalan: Làpida
gravestone in Danish: Gravsten
gravestone in German: Grabstein
gravestone in Esperanto: Tomboŝtono
gravestone in Spanish: Lápida
gravestone in Finnish: Hautakivi
gravestone in Hebrew: מצבה
gravestone in Indonesian: Batu nisan
gravestone in Japanese: 墓石
gravestone in Malay (macrolanguage): Batu nisan
gravestone in Dutch: Grafsteen
gravestone in Norwegian Nynorsk: Gravminne
gravestone in Norwegian: Gravminne
gravestone in Polish: Nagrobek
gravestone in Portuguese: Lápide
gravestone in Simple English: Headstone
gravestone in Sundanese: Paésan
gravestone in Swedish: Gravsten
gravestone in Yiddish: מצבה
gravestone in Classical Chinese: 墓碑
arch, barrow, boundary stone, brass, bust, cairn, cenotaph, column, cromlech, cross, cup, cyclolith, dolmen, footstone, grave, headstone, hoarstone, inscription, ledger, marker, mausoleum, megalith, memento, memorial, memorial arch, memorial column, memorial statue, memorial stone, menhir, monolith, monument, mound, necrology, obelisk, obituary, pillar, plaque, prize, pyramid, reliquary, remembrance, ribbon, rostral column, shaft, shrine, stela, stone, stupa, tablet, testimonial, tomb, tombstone, tope, trophy