Sunday, October 3, 2010

History of a Tombstone

Here in Michigan the oldest grave markers that you will find average to have been erected around 1850. Before that, there was typically only markers made of wood.
A persons immediate family would be able to visit the grave of a loved one as long as they lived in the area. After that, it was neglected and forgotten. Eventually giving in to time and weather and fading along with the memory of the person who died. The only persons with a more permanent marker would have been dignitaries or important people of the area or time. But, often they were memorialized in a town square rather than a grave yard. Grave yards were not how we know them today. They were often outside of town because the art of embalming had not been developed and lets face it, a decaying corpse is not something that anyone would want to smell. Today, we not only have embalming, but we have cement vaults to contain our loved ones. They not only help to keep out moisture, bugs and tree roots, but they contain the not so pleasant side of death. We would all like to remember our loved ones for who they were, alive and not think about what's happening beneath the surface of the cemetery plot.

 Early markers were usually simple wooden crosses.
The cross being a symbol of death even before being adopted by Christianity.
Individual stone markers are only about three hundred years old and started in 18th century Colonial America.

18th Century American grave stones depicted images of death or mortality symbols. They were hand carved and could take months or even years to complete a more elaborate stone. Granite was the stone of choice. A  marble stone was easier to carve. Marble however does not hold up as well in the weather. If you find an old marble stone now, it's likely that you won't be able to read it at all. Most of the original stones had a symbol of a skull at the top. These were carved and kept in stock. Then upon death, only the name and dates would have to be chiseled into the stone by hand, speeding up the process.
Here is a sample of the original stones from a grave of a Revolutionary War Veteran in Barnstable Massachusetts. The wings at the side of the skull symbolize the ascension into heaven.

A few years later, people wanted a more pleasing image than the death image of a skull and opted for angels or like this one depicting a willow tree. The weeping willow represents sadness or mourning for the loved one that has passed on to their eternal life.

The idea of individual markers has caught on. You can see them across the globe in every country.
In the future, I'll try to post some of the styles and symbolism's that I've been able to find in my travels. And I'm always on the lookout for interesting epitaphs. Let me know in the comments if you've seen one that caught your attention.


Razzberry Corner said...

Very interesting post. I love cemetaries, and stop at every one I can. I especially love the old ones, with graves from the 1800s. I've even found some graves from the late 1700s here in MD. Thanks for the history lesson!

sophie... said...

This is always fascinating...graveyards are so peaceful mainly because no one goes there. We go regularly and enjoy our moments!

Stew said...

Welcome to the brighter side Lynn. We seem to be drawn in to every one that we see as well. Sometimes having to remind ourselves to get back to the task at hand..... going somewhere.

And Sophie! Dogs are not allowed at the cemetery. But, I won't tell if you don't tell that Pugs runs around them too. I would love to someday get to the one in Halifax where the people from Titanic are burried. I've always been fascinated by that whole thing. Even went to the museum exibit when it stopped in Detroit.

Jabacue said...

As you can see already, we have spent many an hour roaming around cemeteries mainly in search of ancestors. There are some pretty old ones in Halifax dating to the 1600's!

Stew said...

1600's, amazing. My research says that the 1700's was the start of the stone markers for individuals. However, that is open for argument for sure.
Either way, I believe that after leaving their home countries, people were looking to lay down some roots. What better way to start a new life than with a little history. And there definitely is history in a cemetery.
Thanks for the info. All the more reason to visit the maritime provinces.

John Gray said...

I live right next to a churchyard... the oldest graves are around 1600
I agree with sophie..there is something rather peaceful and resting about an old graveyard....

AJ-OAKS said...

I also love old cemetaries. There is so much history and the craftmanship of the head stones/markers is magnificent. The next time I go to the old more famous cemetary that is three towns over I'll take some pics and post them.
Didn't know about the weeping willow tree story. Thanks! I always try to learn something new everyday and thanks to your history telling, I did!