Types and Explanation of Headstones
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.
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 a
nd 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
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
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.
Markers usually bear inscriptions: epitaphs in praise of the deceased or quotations from
religious texts. In a few instances the inscription is in the form of a plea, admonishment,
testament of faith, claim to fame or even a curse — William Shakespeare's inscription
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosèd here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
Or a warning about Mortality, such as this Persian poetry carved on an ancient tombstone
in the Tajiki capital of Dushanbe. 
I heard that mighty Jamshed the King
Carved on a stone near a spring of water these words:
"Many – like us – sat here by this spring
And left this life in the blink of an eye.
We captured the whole world through our courage and strength,
Yet could take nothing with us to our grave."
The basic information on the headstone generally includes the name of the deceased and
their date of birth and death. Such information can be useful to genealogists and local
historians. Larger cemeteries may require a discrete reference code as well to help
accurately fix the location for maintenance. The cemetery owner, church, or, as in the
UK, national guidelines might encourage the use of 'tasteful' and accurate wording in
Headstone engravers faced their own "Year 2000 problem" when still-living people, as
many as 500,000 the United States alone, pre-purchased headstones with pre-carved
death dates beginning 19–.
Bas-relief carvings of a religious nature or of a profile of the deceased can be seen on
headstones dating from before the 1800s. Since the invention of photography, a
gravestone might include a framed photograph or cameo of the deceased; photographic
images or artwork (showing the loved one, or some other image relevant to their life,
interests or achievements) are sometimes now engraved onto smooth stone surfaces.
Some headstones use lettering made of white metal fixed into the stone, which is easy
to read but can be damaged by ivy or frost. Deep carvings on a hard-wearing stone may
weather many centuries exposed in graveyards and still remain legible. Those which are
fixed on the inside of churches, on the walls or on the floor (frequently as near to the
altar as possible) may last much longer: such memorials were often embellished with
a monumental brass.
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
Terms for cemeteries and headstones
altar tomb - A solid, rectangular, raised tomb or gravernarker resembling ceremonial
altars of classicalantiquity and Judeo-Christian ritual.
bevel marker -A rectangular gravemarker, set low to the ground, having straight sides
and uppermost,inscribed surface raked at a low angle.
bolster - a form of gravestone where a cylinder (usually at least 18 inches in diameter
and 36 or more inches long) rests on its side on a footing. Bolsters were most common
in the early twentieth century
burial – grave; the body within the grave; the act of burying a body.
burial, primary - a burial where the body is placed in its grave shortly after death,
with no prior or temporary
burial. Primary burial is the most common form of burial in most modem cemetery
burial, secondary - a burial where the body has spent considerable time (often several
years) in a temporaryresting place before removal to its final resting place. Secondary
burials have been fairly common in variousdeath traditions around the worfd and persist
mostly in traditions that have strong non-Western folk elements
burial, urn - the burial of an urn with cremated remains in it.
burial axis- the line that follows along the length of the body in a burial; the "length" of the
burial ground - Also "burying ground;" same as "graveyard"
burial site - A place for disposal of burial remains, including various forms of encasement
and platform burialsthat are not excavated in the ground or enclosed by mounded earth.
cairn - a pile of rocks. Cairns can be erected over graves as markers, as bases to support
crosses or other
upright markers, or as protective devices from scavenging animals. comp. mound, rock.
Cemetery - any place where more than one body has been buried, especially (but not
necessarily) with gravemarkers. Different governmental agencies have slightly different
criteria for what legally constitutes a
Cenotaph - a grave where the body is not present; a memorial erected as over a grave, but
at a place where thebody has not been interred. A cenotaph may look exactly like any other
grave in terms of marker and inscription. Cenotaphs often commemorate the deaths of
those lost at sea, in war, or by some other means where recovery or transportation of a
body would be difficult.
Centerpiece - a sculpture or other monument, usually in the middle of a cemetery,
commemorating no one inparticular, but for the benefit of all buried there.
Centerpieces usually are religious and are quite prominent in many Catholic traditions,
as with the ornate crucifixion scenes of French-Canadian cemeteries and the large
crosses of Mexican cemeteries.
Coffin - a box for holding a body at burial, made of wood, metal or concrete
Columbarium - a building for the housing of cremated remains. comp. mausoleum.
Coped stone - any stone with a coping, especially one with a peaked (roof-shaped) top.
Coped stones werecommon in the British cemetery tradition from the eighteenth through
the early twentieth centuries.
Coping - a narrow ornamental thickening and overhang of the margin of the top of a
gravestone. The term comes from a sort of roof element, and a coping resembles a small,
Cremation - the burning of human remains before their disposal. In the United States, some
cremated remains are placed in cemeteries or columbaria, while others are strewn over the
ocean or retained in survivors' homes.
Crematorium - A furnace for incinera tion of the dead; also crematory.
crown - the central hump in a crowned gravestone.
crown, lateral - on a crowned gravestone, one of the (usually lower) humps on the sides.
Crowned - referring to a gravestone shape where the top rises in several (usually three)
humps, usually with the central one higher than the others. see crown; crown, lateral.
Crypt - An enclosure for a casket in a mausoleum or underground chamber, as beneath
dressed - referring to stone whose surface has been completely smoothed or otherwise
emerging stone - a type of gravestone where one portion of the stone has been fully
carved, while another portion remains undressed or only partially dressed, giving the
impression of a stone that has been incompletely carved. The emerging stone was
most common in the late nineteenth and earfv twentieth centuries and symbolized a
life partially completed but cut short. tmerging stones are nearly always of granite.
epitaph - a brief saying or literary note, inscribed in a grave marker. The name, places
and dates of birth and death, and other such biographical information that may be
part of the inscription are not considered part of the epitaph.
Exedra - A permanent open air masonry bench with high back, usually semicircular
in plan, patterned after the porches or alcoves of classical antiquity where philosophical
discussions were held; in cemeteries, used as an element of landscape design and as
a type of tomb monument.
Exhumation - the removal of a body from a grave.
family stone - a gravestone that marks the entire family's plot, not a particular
individual's grave. In the United States, such stones are most common in the
European traditions. Sometimes a family stone also will have the names and
dates of the individuals of the family carved on it, but there usually will be
separate stones for the individuals.
Finial - an ornament atop a post or similar element in furniture or other craft.
Finials can occur on the posts of grave fences or (less commonly) on grave
markers themselves. Finials always have radial symmetry, as if formed on
footboard - a flat, slab-like wooden grave marker placed at the foot end of a grave.
Footboards are used only in conjunction with headboards and usually are considerably
smaller and less ornate, often bearing only initials as inscriptions.
footing - a slab, usually of concrete, that is horizontal and flush with the surface of the
ground, on which a grave marker is placed. The footing itself usually is unornamented
and considered structural, not a part of the marker itself.
footstone - a flat, slab-like stone grave marker placed at the foot end of a grave.
Footstones, are used only in conjunction with headstones and usually are
considerably smaller and less ornate, often bearing only initials as inscriptions
grave - the individual feature where a body (rarely more than one body) is buried in a
single pit or its equivalent, including any marker or monument associated with it.
grave, mass - a grave where many people are buried together. In most historic societies,
mass graves have been expedients for emergencies when death was massive and rapid,
as during an epidemic, war, or disaster.
grave, multiple - a grave where two or more bodies are buried together. A multiple grave
may be a mass grave or simply a grave where members of a family or other social groups
are placed upon death. Multiple graves are rather uncommon in recent historic societies.
grave, outlying - a grave that is located well away from others. Such graves often are
given to members of society deemed unacceptable. In Catholic cemeteries, outlying
graves may be for excommunicates, suicides, and the like.
Grave curb - a low border, usually of stone or concrete, surrounding a grave or plot,
beginning slightly underground and extending no more than a few inches above the
surface of the ground. A grave curb is open in the middle, although the central area
may be filled with gravel, scraped earth, or lawn. comp. grave fence; paving.
grave depression - a hollow in the surface of the ground over a grave, brought about by
the collapse of a disintegrating coffin. syn. grave, sunken.
grave fence - a fence surrounding a grave or plot completely, usually one or more feet
high. A grave fence can be of the most homely materials or of elegant and expensive
commercial fencing. e.g. cerquita. comp. grave curb; grave rail.
gravehouse - a ramada (roof with comer posts supporting it) over a grave, or a shed over
a grave. The gravehouse is known especially from the American South. It probably
developed there from local Indian usage, but it may have developed from a weaker
tradition in England.
grave lamp - any type of lighting device placed on a grave, apparently symbolizing
eternal light (in the Judeo-Christian tradition). It may be kept lighted or not; it may
even be incapable of being lighted, as with a lighi bulb placed on the surface of a
grave, a fairly common grave offering in various parts of the American South.
grave landscaping - any modification of the grave area in terms of plantings, gardens,
fountains, or the like. Grave landscaping is most prominent with elite graves, such as
that of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the famous actor. His grave has fountains, reflecting
pools, a shrine, and trees. Grave landscaping in America began essentially
with the rural cemetery movement of the mid-nineteenth century, beginning in the
grave marker - any above-ground device or monument to mark a grave. e.g. gravestone;
grave offering - any item sacrificed or donated at a grave. A grave offering may
be durable and visible (e.g., shells, jewelry), ephemeral (e.g., wine or beer poured
into the ground), or anywhere in between (e.g., flowers). Grave offerings may be
conceived as items of use to the deceased in the afterlife, as items to enhance or
commemorate the status of the deceased (and his or her survivors), or as simple
obligations. A grave offeringmay be made at the time of burial and included in the
coffin or grave pit with the body, or it may be placed on the grave at any time
after burial. e.g. libation. grave pit the actual hole into which a body is placed,
including a filled-in hole. grave post a simple wooden post used as a grave marker.
grave rail - a wooden rail placed along the long side (burial axis) of a grave on the
surface as a grave marker. Normally, grave rails form a pair, one on each side of
gravestone - a stone grave marker; more loosely, any grave marker. syn. tombstone.
Graveyard - An area set aside for burial of the dead; a common burying ground of a
church or community.
headboard - a flat, slab-like wooden grave marker placed at the head end of a grave.
Headboards may be used alone or in conjunction with footboards. see footboard.
Headstone - a flat, stab-like stone grave marker placed at the held end of a grave.
Headstones may be used alone or in conjunction with footstones. sce footstone.
Impressed - decoration is made by pressing something against the surface of the
concrete while it is wet, then removing it, leaving an impression. This is fairly
common technique in various folk cemetery traditions, with leaves and crucifixes
among the more commonly impressed items. incising the creating of aline by
drawing a stylus or similar tool through the surface of a wet material before it
Incising - is a common method of making inscriptions or producing artwork on
concrete markers, particularly in folk traditions.
inhumation - the burial of a body in the ground
initial stone - a gravestone with initials carved at the base as a maker's mark
inscription - writing on a grave marker. By convention, this term is used regirdle-sof
the technique used to render the writing (e.g., carving, painting, etc.). The
inscription usually includes biographical information and the epitiph, if any.
-inscription, relict the traces of an inscription, otherwise destroyed, that may
reveal that inscription.
inset - referring to the placing of objects in the concrete of a grave marker when
it was wet
interment - the burial or other disposition ofa dead body
layout - the spatial organization of a cemetery
layout, chronological - a cemetery layout where grave- are arranged by death order, with
no consideration of family or other alliances.
layout, family-plot - a cemeterv layout where graves are arranged by family affiliation,
not by death order.
ledger stone - a grave marker that is placed horizontally, flush with the surface of the
earth. This style marker has become increasingly popular with cemetery maintenance
workers because of the case of mowing grass around and over them.
lichgate - an arching gate, usually of iron, at the entrance to a cemetery.
lot - an area of a cemetery owned or controlled by an individual or family.
maker's mark - a distinctive mirk, usually initials or a name, placed on a gravestone
as an indication of its maker.
mausoleum - a building for the housing of bodies in separate drawer,- or compirtments.
A mausoleum differs from 1 tomb in that it is owned communally by tile cemetery and
patrons purchase rights to a section of it, while a tomb is built, owned, and used
exclusively by a single family or similar group.
memorial - a grave marker, usually in ornate one
Memorial park - A cemetery of the 20th century cared for in perpetuity by a business or
nonprofit corporation; generally characterized by open expanses of greensward with either
flush or other regulated gravernarkers; in the last half of the 19th century, those
with flush markers were called "lawn" cemeteries.
Monolith - A large, vertical stone gravernarker having no base or cap.
monument - a grave marker, usually one with sorne fanciness and size.
Motif – any more or less standardized artistic theme or representation, such as a rose,
cherub, or urn-and-willow.
mound - a pile of earth or similar material erected over a grave as a form of marker.
Earthen mounds are common in many pre-modern societies around the world (e.g.,
Adena and Hopewell societies of North American prehistory, Neolithicand Bronze
Age societies of prehistoric Furope, the jornon Culture of prehistoric Japan, etc.),
but earthen mounds are less common in recent burial traditions and tend to be
small when they do Occur.
mound, rock - a low pile of rock, often admixed with earth, erected over a grave.
National cemetery - One of 130 burial grounds established by the Congress of the United
States since 1862 for interment of armed forces servicemen and women whose last service
ended honorably. Presently, the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains 114, the National
Park Service (Department of the Interior) administers 14, and the Department of the Army
has responsibility for two.
neoclassical - referring to the art style of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
where motifs and scenes drawn from classical Greece and were used in decoration.
Urns, draperies, columns, and certain human poses typify this style.
Niche - in general, any recess in the surface of something; a compartment in a columbariurn
or other area for the placement of cremation remains.
nimbus - a halo-like representation in Christian art, especially the representation of such
a glow at the intersection of the upright and arm of a cross. In such a position, the nimbus
indicates that the cross was that on which Jesus was crucified. The nimbus can be circular,
diamond-shaped, oval, jagged, or even square.
obelisk - a gravestone that is tall, slender, square in cross-section, and pointed at
the top. Obelisks usually are quite large and imposing, indicating the wealth and
stature of the deceased.
openwork - carving that cuts entirely through a stone, creating arches, loops, and
Orientation - the direction of the burial axis of a grave. The direction to which the
head points, (or at least where the main marker is) is usually considered the
paving - a surface of concrete, brick, or stone placed on the ground over a grave.
Pavings often are used in conjunction with grave markers, although some traditions
(e.g., Mennonites) typically simply incise the inscription into a concrete paving
and provide no other marker.
Peristyle - A colonnade surrounding the exterior of a building, such as a mausoleum, or a
range of columns supporting an entablature (a beam) that stands free to define an outdoor
alcove or open space.
Pillar - a grave marker consisting of a tall, slender, ornate gravestone with a circular
cross-section. Pillars give the appearance of being turned on a lathe and actually derive
from the British tradition of Georgian furniture.
Plot - an area of a cemetery given over to an individual, family, or other social group.
The term is more inclusive than "lot," since a lot can occur only in a cemetery with
some institutional organization that assigns areas; in contrast, a plot can develop
through usage in a customary cemetery
rippling - the undulating or ridged marks left on the back side of a hand-carved
gravestone by the chisel, as it was used to thin the stone to its slab-like shape.
rubbing - means of obtaining a copy of the bas-relief cirving on a gravestone or
similar object. Rubbings are made by placing rice paper over tile surface of tile
marker, then rubbing gently oil thepaper with a soft pencil,a crayon,or a
similar writing material. Rubbings are quite accurate in their copying of a design,
but some cemeteries have had to forbid the making of rubbings, because the
activity is slowly wearing away the stirface of the stories.
Sarcophagus - A stone coffin or monumental chamber for a casket.
sculpture - any carving or other rendering of stone where all three dimensions (including
depth) are used.
Sepulcher - A burial vault or crypt.
sidepanel - on a gravestone, a decorative stripalong one vertical side.
Slab - any grave marker that is essentiallya thin, flat piece. Slabs can be of any material
but usually are of stone, concrete, or wood.
slope - on a gravestone with a convex upper surface, either of the upper surfaces
that curve or angle downward frorn the storie's highest point.
Stamping - the placing of an inscription in concrete by pressing letter molds into it
Tablet -A rectangular gravernarker set at a right angle to the ground, having
inscriptions, raised lettering or carved decoration predominantly on vertical
planes, and top surface finished in straight, pedimented, round, oval, or
terrazzo - a synthetic material sometime- used for grave markers. Terrazzo consists of
chunks of stone, glass, or ceramics mixed intoa fine cement.
tomb - a building-like burial receptacle, Anywhere a body or bodies are stored
above ground in drawers. A tomb may be grand, but it houses the remains of
only a few people, usually
tomb,false - a type of grave marker where a slab of stone or concrete covers the
area of a grave and extends above the gorund anywhere from a few inches to a
couple of feet. A false tomb most frequently is boxy, but it may be rounded or
otherwise embellished. It may have an accompanying gravestone, or it may
bear an inscription itself. It is not a true tomb, since the burial is underground.
tomb, table - a stone grave marker similar to a chest tomb but differing in that
its top is supported by small columns it the corner only.
undressed - referring to a stone marker that has not had its surface completely
smoothed or otherwise finished.
Upright stone - a grave marker that is placed upright, above the stirface of the
vault - a tomb; a modern concrete shell placed over a coffin to prevent sinking
of the ground surface in a cemetery
wedgestone - a style of grave marker, usually of stone but occasionally of
concrete. A wedge stone, not surprisingly, is essentially wedge-shaped,
so that the bottom surface lies flat on the ground, the back surface runs
more or less vertically, and the top surface (with the inscription) slope-,
from the top of the stone at its back to ground level at its front.
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