A history of headstones

A headstone, tombstone, or gravestone is one of the oldest forms of funerary art, used to mark out a grave of the deceased. They are used for burials across many religions and faiths including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

While we use the terms interchangeably today, they were once different things. Originally a tombstone was the coffin itself, built of stone, or at least the stone lid to the coffin. The gravestone was different and was a stone slab laid over the grave. Back in the 18th century, footstones were also used – a small stone to show where the grave ended. These are not used anymore but it’s interesting that in some UK cemeteries today the stone is placed at the foot of the grave, not at the head.

Going back a couple of hundred years, some graves would also have stone all the way around to mark out the perimeter. You’ll still see some of these in older churchyards. As they cost money, graves and memorials were also a symbol of wealth or prominence in the community.

If you’ve ever wondered why older gravestones are tilted or away from others, that’s probably due to the soil movement that occurs over time, particularly on gentle inclines.

Typically stones will include the name of the deceased, their birth and death dates and a short personal message. Across Europe it’s very common to have a photo of the person, which you may recall seeing if you have visited or passed by graveyards abroad. People also place stones in the ground if loved ones have been cremated, or place a plaque on a memorial.

Another feature some stones have is pieces of art. This may include symbolic items. For instance, birds represent the soul, a book stands for faith and wisdom, an olive branch for forgiveness and peace, and a pillow symbolises eternal sleep, or effectively a deathbed.

Famous graves

So where are some of the most famous graves from the last few centuries located, and what do they look like?

Elvis Presley’s grave in Graceland, Memphis is one of the most visited graves in the world with around 600,000 visitors every year. He is buried alongside several members of his family around a beautiful water feature in the Meditation Garden.

Westminster Abbey is home to some of Britain’s greatest figures, including Elizabeth I, Chaucer and Charles Dickens, but it’s the tomb and monument of Sir Isaac Newton, which is the most impressive to look at. It’s made of white and grey marble with a sculptured figure of Newton leaning against a pile of scientific books with a globe above him.

William Shakespeare is entombed in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Due to the age of the tomb, the words on his gravestone are almost too worn away to see, but they are thought to read: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here; Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

How to choose a headstone

A headstone serves as a timeless tribute to the deceased and while you’re still in the early stages of the grieving process your thoughts are bound to be clouded by sadness. Don’t make any quick decisions, take your time and make sure you think through what you want. A temporary wooden maker can always be put in place while you make your final decision.

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make is on the style of headstone. The most traditional design is the upright headstone, which is usually made from granite, limestone or marble. There’s also white marble and bronze. As well as the overall look, you’ll need to consider things such as durability, how clearly it will show an inscription, weather resistance and what kind of cleaning and maintenance it will require. And of course cost will be a factor. Granite is a popular choice as it’s a cheap option, highly durable and comes in different colours and finishes.

And then you’ll need to think about what words you want inscribed on the stone. The inscription usually includes the name of the deceased and their date of birth and death, along with an epitaph. Finding the right words can be the hardest part, which is another good reason not to rush things. You might want to choose something simple, such as ‘Gone but not forgotten’ or ‘Until we meet again’. Some people prefer a Bible passage, the verse of a poem or a memorable quote.

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