This weekend on NewmarketToday, we begin a two-article examination of tombstones or monuments. I have been conducting walking tours of cemeteries for years and a major focus of these tours has been the history behind burial markers and the hidden language that the engravings on monuments represent. I have also conducted presentations on the topic over the years and the topic has been of interest to audiences.
I have a personal connection to the topic as ‘our family business’ pertained to the manufacturing of monuments which include the design and lettering of these tombstone. As a child, my poor grandfather and uncle were charged with baby-sitting this small, inquisitive boy and they often took me on their visits to local cemeteries and explained the process to me for my amusement. My grandfather was a master stone mason and took great pride in his nearly 70 years in the trade.
Along with my passion for our local history, I am also an avid genealogist and the study of transcriptions, memorials and their symbolism has always proven a valuable tool for me in both of my hobbies.
The use of cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions can often lead one to little known or nearly lost information vital to the completing of one’s family history. For instance, on a grave marker (monument) we will often learn where the person was born, who they married, their place of birth, when their spouse died, and how their descendants felt about them. A standard inscription on an eighteenth-century tombstone look like this:
Born in England
Arrived in Canada 1831
married Hannah Chandler
Died Dec. 1881 at 50
She died June 1897 at 66
Their Descendants in reverence for their moral worth and Christian virtue erected this monument
A. D. 1899.
One can then take the next step using this research checking the obituaries in local newspapers. They often include the names of parents, spouse, children, and, sometimes, siblings, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. If an inscription includes their birthplace, you will now know where to look for birth records and possibly education, religious affiliation, and marriage records. One of the best sources for finding a woman's surname before modern times is from the cemetery records of her gravesite.
Limited space afforded on tombstones requires the use of symbols to represent how a family wished to memorialize an individual. Men like my grandpa, who for 70 years made headstones, were considered artisans. Sadly, this art form began to subside after World War 2 as smaller, simpler monuments gained popularity, partly because of the cost involved and a change in tastes.
Perhaps you do not know where an ancestor is interred, but you do know where they died. You can check with the local government's vital records department to find the burial site on the death certificate. Online service like ‘Find-A-Grave’ can be particularly helpful. Religious institutions also used to keep records of where burials occurred for the funeral services performed through them. Newspaper obituaries will tell of funeral arrangements, including the cemetery, as will funeral homes.
Perhaps the most effective method for recording a tombstone is by photographing it. Gravestone rubbings were once a popular means for preserving the look of the monument and the information on it. Recently, many cemeteries have banned this practice because it causes undo damage to the headstone.
Whether you are just beginning your family history study or looking to supplement your research, using the resources available in cemeteries and on tombstone inscriptions can be a valuable tool in revealing your family's past.
Over the years, the composition of tombstones has changed due to changing fashions and as new materials became available. In Victorian times, granite was the material of choice for a cemetery monument. It was particularly hard and durable and could be obtained in a wide variety of colours and crystalline textures.
Marble was also an important second choice as a cemetery monument material. Marble also comes in a wide range of quality and have proven to be quite permanent, however acid rain has caused severe damage to the poorer grades of marble. Many of the sculptures atop monuments are carved in marble.
There are many monuments in local cemeteries that appear, from afar, to be made of a kind of bluish grey stone. These monuments are in fact made of moulded metal. The material was called ‘White Bronze’ to make it more appealing to customers, but it is actually pure zinc. Left exposed to the elements the monuments rapidly form a tough and durable skin of zinc carbonate that protects the underlying metal. The zinc carbonate is what gives the monuments their characteristic bluish grey colour.
I remember my grandpa telling me that these monuments were usually ordered from a catalogue and were inexpensive. In the early 1900s the price range for these monuments was from about $6 for a single cast tablet, to as much as $5,000. The White Bronze markers copied the same shapes and styles as marble and granite monuments, but the stone monument dealers seldom sold the metal monuments.
The catalogs would list the various shapes, symbols, sculptures, and panels that could be used. The customer would choose the design, various symbols, and decorative elements required. The individual pieces were then moulded in zinc, and then bolted together with screws with decorated heads. Any text required was easily moulded in the same fashion. When other family members died, old decorative panels could be easily removed and replaced with new castings with the updated information.
In 1914 the government took over many of the plants for the manufacturing of munitions and in the post-war years the demand for the monuments faded. Zinc has two unfortunate characteristics; it is quite brittle, and its unsupported weight caused some of the larger monuments to bow or crack. These monuments are rare as they were only produced for about 40 years.
Another uncommon material for cemetery monuments is sandstone. The sandstone used in local cemeteries is primarily sourced locally. It proved a very popular building material, harder than some of the local limestones, and easier to work with. Rubbing your fingers on its surface gives a gritty feeling, as the stone breaks back down into sand. Very susceptible to weathering, it proved to be a poor choice for monuments.
One sees very few slate monuments locally as slate monuments tend to flake and split destroying their carved inscriptions. The Victorians noted this and changed to the more durable granite.
We will now turn our attention to the types of monuments often seen locally. Tablets and headstones are the most popular and frequently encountered grave memorial found in old cemeteries. A variety of materials have been used for this type of memorial, ranging from wood to stone. While there are many shapes and sizes of tablets and headstones, most exhibit a few common features.
First, most are not enormous monuments. They tend to be 80 to 100 cm in height and vary in thickness from 8 to 20 cm. The headstone may be placed by itself in the ground or may be set on a base or on top of another grave structure such as a ground ledger. The term "headstone" derives from the position of the stone above the interred corpse’s head. Once it was common to use a headstone and a smaller stone a short distance away called the footstone. Footstones were usually made of the same material as the headstone but were much smaller. The footstone was usually inscribed with the initials of the deceased.
There are several types of tablets. A simple tablet tended to be rectangular and the same thickness throughout; no curves, angles or tapering features. Faces may be polished or plain, a simple construction. A domed tablet tended to have more angles and may be the same thickness throughout or thicker at the base. Tapers to a domed top having a convex shape or sloping angles. A shouldered tablet has far more intricate angles and cuts on the top portion of the headstone. A gothic tablet was like the domed tablet with angles along the top of the headstone and steeper shoulders like the Gothic arches popular in European churches. Finally, we have the rustic tablet / headstone which tends to be thicker and more robust than other designs. It is common to see these memorials with a pattern that looks almost like a stone wall. The main inscription face is usually polished, and the polished section may be in the shape of a large arrow pointing upward (direct line to heaven).
Markers are common in old cemeteries, and they can be found set into a base, on a ground ledger or just by themselves. Most markers tend to be thicker than headstones / tablets and lower to the ground. The one exception is the plaque, which is quite thin. Where tablets / headstones are made of almost any material, markers tend to be made from stone, cement, or bronze. There are great variations in the sizes of markers, from tiny ones on children’s graves to huge, monumental ones on prominent family grave sites. Because markers are lower to the ground, much bulkier and constructed of more durable material, little damage has occurred to them over the years.
Here are some of the most common types of markers:
The Ground Ledgers, rectangular in shape, takes the dimensions of the grave itself. They are usually made of granite, sandstone, or marble. They are bulkier and constructed low to the ground. These factors contribute to the long-life expediency of these markers.
The simple block is rectangular and tends to be quite thick, usually made of marble or granite. The flat marker is a little thinner and lies flat along the ground and usually has only enough room for a very simple inscription such as name, years of birth and death and a three- or four-word epitaph.
Plaques tend to be very thin and made of either bronze or brass, showing very little deterioration over time. Lettering is usually in relief and incised. Brass develops a patina with its reaction to the environment and leaves a green-coloured residue when in contact with water.
A slant-faced marker comes in a variety of sizes and styles, the slant of the inscription face is usually at a 40-to-45-degree angle, allowing the inscription to face a certain direction (usually east). This slant in the stone’s face allows for a greater surface area for inscriptions. Most often these markers are made of granite, marble, or cement. A scroll-faced marker tends to lie flat and is fashioned in the shape of a scroll, seen easily from the sides of the marker. The inscription is always placed on the scroll. The symbolic reference is to ‘divine law’. Most scroll-faced markers are made of granite but there are some examples in marble. The open-book marker lays flat and takes on the dimensions of an open book (religious symbolism referring to the Bible or the word of God). This type of marker was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost all open-book markers are made of granite or marble. Very common on husband-and-wife burials with the husband’s inscription on the left, as in the marriage ceremony.
The tree stump tombstones depict a lifelike tree and are traditionally carved out of limestone or marble. This tombstone first appeared in the 1870s and was popular for approximately sixty years as folk art. The tree-stump design shows a living tree that has been cut down, suggesting that the individual was also cut down in the prime of life. Branches are also seen to be cut-off close to the stump, symbolizing other family members who have died before their time. In some instances, the initials of these family members appear to be carved into these cut-off limbs. Inscriptions are cut into the "wood" where the bark has been cut away, or a scroll appears nailed to the stump or suspended from a rope hanger. Various flowers and ivy are often carved as offerings at the base or growing around the stump. An assortment of items are often seen on top of the stump, ranging from a cross, bible, anchor, flowers, or even the name and dates for the individual buried.
The obelisk is one of the most pervasive of all the revival forms of cemetery art. There is hardly a cemetery founded in the 1840s and 50s without some form of Egyptian influence in the public buildings, gates, and tomb art. Obelisks were tasteful, with pure uplifting lines, associated with ancient greatness, patriotic, able to be used in relatively small spaces, and, perhaps most importantly, obelisks were less costly than large and elaborate sculpted monuments.
All obelisks and columns borrow heavily from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman architectural styles. The original obelisk was square in section, tapering up to a pyramidal capital. During the 1800s, stonemasons used a variety of obelisk types, some with straight shafts and different tops from blunt (truncated Roman influence) to cross-vaulted on the top. Obelisks and columns have three distinct sections: the base (bottom support), the shaft (centre column piece) and the capital (the top structure).
The one great advantage of obelisks, pilaster columns and pedestals is that while headstones and markers only have one inscription face, obelisks, columns and pedestals provide at least four inscription faces. These types of monuments are usually found on family burials or those of people of high social status. Because obelisks, columns and pedestals are higher, they also tend to stand out more in the cemetery and are easily located.
There are several subtypes including the standard obelisk which is shaped like a finger or ray from the sun, Egyptian in origin representing "Ra" the giver of all life, usually made of granite, sandstone, or marble. The truncated or blunt obelisk has a similar shape to the standard obelisk but with a rounded capital (top), Roman in origin, perhaps a modification of the Egyptian obelisk and made of sandstone, marble, or granite. Vaulted obelisks have a distinctive capital (top) usually a cross-vaulted obelisk. The cross-vaulted obelisk’s capital peaks cross over, which gives a "+" or cross-vaulted pattern.
Columns come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well. The gateway / bi-columnar monument usually appears as two columns supporting an arch. The columns can be Egyptian, Greek, or Roman. The columns and arch represent a gateway or entrance, ‘The portal to eternity’, and are commonly found where a husband and wife are buried side by side. Very common on Masonic graves, they are free-standing, but can be found on top of ground ledgers. They also appear in a great variety of sizes and usually are made of either granite or marble.
The broken column is typically classical Greek style and originated in England about 1815 and denotes the burial spot of a child or young person whose life was cut short.
The classical Greek column has a straight shaft with flutes; shaft can taper slightly or be straight. Column may have an urn at the top and of marble or grey granite. The standard column has a rounded shaft that does not taper and has no flutes, but a smooth surface running up to the capital, usually with an urn on top and is usually made of marble, sandstone, or granite.
The Pilaster column is a type of column, a combination of the obelisk and the column monument with a square or rectangular shaft, flat topped or topped with an urn. Romans appear to have first used this type of column, which was elaborately decorated with acanthus and garlands. It is perhaps better to refer to pilasters as either "pilaster columns" (free-standing) or "pilasters" (eclectic memorials). Cemetery pilaster columns tend to be smaller than most other column memorials.
The stele is Greek in origin, a small column or pillar terminating in a cresting ornament and used as a monument. The pedestal monument tends to be large, have four faces for inscriptions and flat vertical sides (tapering or straight) topped either with a flat capital or pediment (triangular roof-like structure). There may also be an urn above the pediment or the capital and is enriched with inscriptions, motifs, and ornamental styling on four faces. Most often, these monuments are large and made of either granite or marble.
The eclectic monument is large and incorporates two or three styles. This type of monument is commonly a large flat screen (for inscriptions) topped by either support pilasters or round or standard columns supporting a pediment capital and are massive and made of granite.
The cross takes many forms, and the symbolic meanings and history of each type is very complex and elaborate. There are many types of crosses but the most often encountered as grave memorials are the Latin cross, common in Roman Catholic cemeteries or Catholic sections of cemeteries it is a flat cross made of wood, granite, marble, or granite and is very susceptible to damage because the cross bar or shoulders can be easily broken. The Calvary cross is a Latin cross mounted on a three-tiered base. Representing the Trinity or faith, hope and charity (Protestant) or faith, hope and love (Roman Catholic) and is made of any material, ranging from wood to stone. The Celtic cross dates to the Celtic cultures of England, as early as the 5th century with a very elaborate decoration, highly ornate in styling and the center of the cross has a circular design that represents eternity and is always in granite or marble. And finally, the Rustic cross, which was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, has a rustic appearance resembling wood and made of granite or marble with a rough granite base.
You may wish to print this article as a guide for when you next visit a local cemetery. Next weekend we will examine the symbolism to be found on tombstones and try to decipher the secrets we find all around us in the local cemetery.
'Tombstones: Signposts to the Past' by Richard MacLeod Newmarket Historical Society March 17, 2004, and The Scarborough Historical Society Jan. 24, 2005
'Written in Stone: Research Booklet' by Richard MacLeod Newmarket Historical Society March 17, 2004
Oral History Interviews with George Luesby Senior and John (Jack) Luesby from 'Luesby Memorials' by Richard MacLeod
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket oday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.