The History of Gravestones

Gravestones (vertical slabs as opposed to those lying flat and referred to as ledgers) come in all shapes and sizes, from small stubby grave markers to large and elaborate headstones, with a separate foot-stone marking the limit the burial. However, they did not always look like this:

Early Gravestones

The Romans used a version known as stelae, and a few later Anglo-Saxon types also survive, although both are usually now inside museums or churches. Medieval gravestones were only for notable burials, principally at monastic sites. Most have sunk into the ground, been built into the fabric of a church (where they can often still be seen) or destroyed in the turbulent century after the Reformation.

Eighteenth-century Gravestones

Gravestones from the 18th century are rich and varied: some in the hands of skilled masons (their names often carved on the lowest part of the stone) are works of art, while others still retain the crude and rustic charm previous century.

19th Century Gravestones

Generally, gravestones grew in size from 3 ft. to 4 or 5 ft. They also became thinner, and the quality of the work generally more refined. There was a wide selection of shapes inspired by the Classical form of contemporary architecture and furniture design.

The profile at the top was simple, with either a square, shallow triangle or arch being common forms. Decoration like swags, garlands and draped fabric remained popular, and new ones with more geometric forms like Greek key. Large decorated words or phrases like ‘Sacred’ and ‘In Memory’ were prominent towards the top of many stones, and the inscriptions below became more emotional and sentimental.

Victorian Gravestones

A new clergy inspired by medieval Gothic architecture looked disdainfully upon what they regarded as pagan forms on Georgian gravestones. Instead, they sought more appropriate styles and images, most notably with the return of the cross as a symbol (it had not been popular since the Reformation for fear of ‘Popery’). New pattern books with designs by local architects became the reference point for memorials, with Gothic arched slabs, altar tombs, coped stones and the Celtic cross prominent.