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American History of Cemetaries and Gravestones

Updated on May 28, 2012

Death Head Gravestone

Death head gravestone found in Old Burial Hill graveyard in New England.
Death head gravestone found in Old Burial Hill graveyard in New England. | Source

Cemeteries and gravestones allow for a look into the history and cultures of the past, establishing an important visual record and some insight into the changing attitudes of death. Gravestones are art. Art that changes over time and tells a story. Changes occur over time when considering the content, style, materials used, and cultural trends. The choice of a particular gravestone is an important step in the burial process. Each stone and carving has a meaning. Gravestones are more than a mere design.

Artwork can be seen in regard to the shape and construction of the gravestones, the materials used, and as the content of the epitaphs written on them. Each stone represents the values of an era, as well as the current trends of society. At different times, wealth was also a deciding factor used in establishing the size and content of the early gravestones. Competition and creativity were prime motivators. Over time the wealth of the deceased, and the display thereof, was not as important. Unity and simplicity were more important than flamboyant displays of wealth.

Cemeteries are a record of change, not only seen with the vision and content of the gravestone, but within the cemetery itself. Art is created by the manicured lawns, trees, flowers, and ornaments placed in the cemetery and near the gravestones. The stones reflected the personal preferences of the individual and displayed who was included in their family. There were visual memorials added to cemeteries, such as candles or personal items. The gravestones as well as the cemetery were made to be aesthetically pleasing.

Changes of gravestone styles over time can seem extreme. One example is the winged death’s head image carved upon gravestones. These were found prior to 1760. In comparison, the prominent images seen at a later date was of the angel cherub, and then the urn and willow image. All of those symbols represented the immortal soul, regardless of the extreme differences of the images. Later, a greater variety of images were seen on the stones, such as lambs, flowers, or religious symbols. Gravestones were then more personalized to an individual, or their religion and beliefs. Many symbols had the same meaning in regard to death; these corresponded to the cultural trends of the era. Epitaphs also changed over time, from the displaying of the demise of the individuals, to the memory of their lives, and then to a minimal use of epitaphs at all.

Not only did the visual aspects of gravestones and cemeteries change, but the outlook of death itself was altered. The virtues of Americans seemed to change. One way this change was seen was by who was buried by whom. The location of a husband and wife together, as well as the location of their children, all played a role in seeing this change. At one time children were commonly buried with their parents; it is believed that more recently children move away and are buried at other locations. Different regions also see a variance of plot or gravestone placement; such as the wife being placed on the right of her husband.

The gravestone images that were photographed at the Concord, MA cemetery followed the outline of change that was typical of the era. They often used the design of the winged death’s head image. This is seen upon the gravestones made within a similar time period of about six years. All three of the gravestone placed in the years 1767, 1768, and 1783, have a similar stone shape, rounded at the top with a pillar type side design. All three are similarly carved with a winged head at the top of the stone and added flowers as decoration.

In contrast between the three gravestones, all three have a winged head, but the look of each varies quite a bit. The image carved into the 1767 gravestone had the death head look, similar to a winged skull. It also had a deeper carved-in look. The 1768 and 1783 the gravestones had a more cherubic facial structure used to create the winged heads. These two stones were carved in a three dimensional manner, with the head and other images protruding from the stone.

When viewing gravestones created prior to the 20th century there is a visible difference in style, content, and materials used. A cemetery can teach the history of the area. According to historians, the grave markers of the past were “not intended to be a memorial, but a stark reminder of what awaited anyone that did not live a godly life" (Grave Markers). People were reminded that death was eminent, so that standards and beliefs would be followed. One could say they were used as a scared straight reminder. Following the era of reminding others of death, gravestones were reminders of life after death. This is when angels and cherubs, along with other religious symbols were added to the stones.

Over time not only did the style and artwork of a gravestone change, but the materials used to make the stone changed. Older graves were marked with stones made of fieldstone, wood, slate, limestone, and iron. These substances have allowed for great deterioration over time. More recently gravestones have been made of white bronze and granite. These are believed to be able to better withstand the natural elements of decay.

While studying the past, each symbol on a gravestone has a meaning. Some examples are of an anchor, representing a steadfast hope and life after death. The arch signifies separation from our loved ones, and supports the idea that they will be seen at some time in heaven. Birds represent the soul. A cherub represents divine wisdom. A lamb signifies innocence. Images were chosen as a reminder and meaning of life and death, and to maintain the memory of the individual.

Trends today have slightly changed the way gravestones are chosen. The memorial aspect is not typically added to a gravestone. Gravestones are often only a marker of an individual’s resting place. Today, we celebrate life rather than death. Funerals and wakes allow for these memories to be exchanged. It is quite apparent that attitudes of death and burial have changed over time. Gravestones can be a window into the past history of a region. Each gravestone and cemetery tells a story that could have been lost without the art and aesthetics recorded and preserved over time.


ART310 Gravestones PowerPoint Presentation. (n.d.).

Grave Markers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2010, from Squidoo:

Jensen, E. S. (n.d.). Social Commentary From the Cemetary.


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    • DiNolen profile image

      DiNolen 5 years ago

      It is quite intriguing. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • mwilliams66 profile image

      mwilliams66 5 years ago from Left Coast, USA

      I have had friends who, when visiting Europe, went on tours of graveyards. I never quite understood the fascination. After reading your article I am very intrigued. I had no idea there was so much to be learned from a headstone. Perhaps it is time for me to go on a tour. Thank you for posting.