What is a Gravestone?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 11 May 2020
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A gravestone is a carved monument used to mark the location of a grave. You may also hear gravestones referred to as headstones, tombstones, or grave markers, although these terms once referred to slightly different things. Cemeteries around the world use gravestones to memorialize the dead, and a wide assortment of examples can be found, from simple monuments to elaborate ones.

Classically, a gravestone includes some basic information about the deceased, such as his or her name, date and place of birth, and date and place of death. Some gravestones also have brief messages, including quotes from religious texts, lines from poems, or verses composed especially for the deceased. If the deceased did something particularly remarkable, this may also be noted on the gravestone, as in “14th Prime Minister of Britain” or “Died Saving His Companions From a Sinking Ship.” It is also not uncommon to see ornamentation on a gravestone, ranging from carvings which surround the text to statues mounted on top of the gravestone.

Styles in gravestones have changed radically throughout history. In the 1600s, for example, many gravestones included crude and threatening verse designed to frighten off grave robbers, while 18th century graves were marked with skulls, crossbones, and other reminders of death. In the 19th century, angels and symbolic carvings of materials like wheat, ivy, and lilies began to be quite common. Archaeologists have also found examples of ancient grave stones and grave markers, reflecting the fact that humans have wanted to memorialize and mourn their dead with formal markers for thousands of years.

The design of a gravestone may also be influenced by the religion of the deceased. Some religions promote the use of simple, clear, modest gravestones, along with modest burial practices, while others encourage the erection of ornate grave markers. Some gravestones include the names of a couple, or are designed to encompass a family plot, allowing people to be buried together in death to reflect their closeness in life.

Stone such as marble, granite, or fieldstone is the traditional material for a gravestone, but it is also possible to see markers made from concrete, wood, or metal. In some cultures, the gravestone is placed at the head of the grave, while in others, it is placed at the foot of the grave. Sometimes two markers are used to clearly designate the head and foot of the grave. Gravestones can also take the form of cenotaphs, memorials to the dead erected in locations where no one is buried, as might be the case when someone is lost at sea.

Some regions have become famous for their gravestones. Westminster Abbey in England, for example, hosts the graves of many prominent Britons, along with a number of fascinating gravestones to mark their final resting places. Military cemeteries are famous for the uniformity and sheer numbers of their gravestones and memorial markers, while Forest Lawn in Los Angeles is world-renowned for the diversity of its grave markers.

Manufacturers of gravestones are often located close to cemeteries, for convenience. In regions where stonemasons do not work in close proximity to a cemetery, cemetery staff often make recommendations for specific masons, reflecting a long-standing relationship. This is especially common in heavily-managed cemeteries, where the size, nature, and placement of gravestones may be tightly regulated.

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Post 4

So what's the difference between a gravestone and a headstone? Because I'm supposed to be looking at cemetery headstones.

Post 3

@boathugger: I will add a few more to the list:

Laurel on a gravestone is associated with the military. Bugles are also associated with military. For children or infants, there is often a lamb or a butterfly. Cherubs are also used for children and infants. A column that is intentionally built looking “broken” represents the loss of the head of a family. A broken ring represents that the family circle has been severed. A caduceus (2 snakes around a staff) indicates that the deceased was probably a doctor.

If you see “IHS” on a headstone, it is taken from the Greek “in hoc salus” which means “there is safety in this”. It is often found on Celtic crosses.

Post 2

@boathugger: There are many different symbols that you might find on gravestones. There are also many gravestone sayings. I will give you a few examples of some symbols and what they represent.

If you come across a gravestone with a hammer and anvil on it, it is likely that the deceased was a blacksmith.

If you see a headstone or gravestone with an anchor or a ship, they were likely a mariner. It can also represent hope.

If there are 3 books on the headstone, it is likely that the deceased was of the Latter Day Saints religion. The 3 books represented are “The Bible”, the “Book of Mormon”, and “Doctrine and Covenants”. Those are all books of the Mormon faith.

Post 1

I am a social work student and am currently taking a class called "The Study of Death and Dying". We are doing an assignment where we have to find out what different symbols are on gravestones. Does anyone have some symbols and meanings that might be on a gravestone?

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