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The History of Gravestones


The gravestone, in its most literal form, has been around for thousands of years. There is evidence of Neanderthal man having been buried deep inside caves in pits. Over the centuries, this developed into the practice of placing bodies in the ground and covering them with stone in order to protect the deceased from wild animals. This practice lasted for many years and people continued to place stones on top of the grave, as the superstitious believed this would prevent the dead from rising.

Gravestones have become known by many names. These days they are largely synonymous with headstones, tombstones or gravemarkers, although they have also been referred to as memorial markers, companion headstones, double deep markers and headstone for two. As well as serving as a lasting tribute to a loved one, gravestones are also welcomed by today's genealogists and are eagerly sought out by those keen to trace their family history.

Eventually, the concept of the cemetery evolved. At first these were simple graves dotted near the family home and rough stone or wooden markers were used, showing only the person's name, age and year of their death. By Norman times, the church recognised burial as a welcome source of income and churchyard burials gradually became common practice. Gravestone memorials were usually square and slender, made of sandstone or slate.

In the nineteenth century, with many churchyards growing full to capacity, the concept of tranquil public cemeteries was born. Gravestone design too began to develop, with headstones becoming bigger, more solid and bearing more detailed inscriptions that added to the simple name, age and year of death.

The Victorian age saw the advent of countless elaborate memorial gravestones, many sculptured from white marble, and the cemeteries filled with carved, sorrowful angels, cherubs and ornate crosses. Poignant, personalised inscriptions (or epitaphs), often of a religious nature, abounded. Many headstones bore symbolic images representing faith, glory, hope etc.

Owing to the materials used, gravestones from the Victorian period attracted growths of damaging moss and lichen. By the late nineteenth century, in a move away from marble, headstones began to be made of soft grey granite, although this weathered very quickly. Today the majority of gravestones are made from polished marble or granite and, as cemetery ground-keeping becomes more stringent, there is a gradual return to simple gravestones, lying flat on the earth.

Although materials and design have changed over the centuries, the headstone remains the symbolic way of marking the grave, allowing both an expression of loving remembrance and a means of tracing the life of the deceased.