The History of Headstones and Burials

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Old headstone in a graveyard

With modern human civilisation dating back some 300,000 years it’s easy to steer our imagination into overdrive when thinking back on how life may have been.

How did we live? What did family life consist of? How did we communicate before modern languages? What made us laugh, cry, grieve, or become angered?

Our emotions and the way we connect with each other, for better or worse, are as old as our species.

A nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle may have meant we were a little more battle-hardened and stronger in adversity – but chances are we experienced the same joy at a birth and sadness at a passing as we do today.

This raises some questions that we’d like to address, such as:

–  What were burials like thousands of years ago?

–  When was the first intentional burial?

–  What is the history of headstones?

–  What sort of headstone materials have been used over the years?

To gain an understanding, we must take a look at what we know about human life and the burials that took place many thousands of years ago.

Prehistoric Burials in the Past

When we look back through history, we see that death has been interpreted in many ways.

Some cultures viewed death as a horror to be avoided, others considered death a fulfilment of a lifelong goal, while others believed passing was one final great adventure on earth before calmly departing for ethereal realms.

Fast forward thousands of years and many humans still hold similar beliefs.

There should be little doubt that death has held a strong symbolic meaning for much of humanity that reaches back perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. An ability to think in symbols is the precursor of many other important human traits, such as thinking in abstract, successfully making plans, and solving problems.

Symbolic thought affords us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualise the future.

Language is the archetypal embodiment of such mental abstractions, though studying the history of verbal communication is difficult because sound doesn’t fossilise. Burials do.

Cross cut into a piece of paper and nailed onto wood
Pages of old book folded into heart shape
Blue neon hands praying

When Was the First Burial?

For a long time, the oldest known intentional burial was at the site of Qafzeh cave in Israel, which dates back around 10,000 years. Here, the remains of as many as 15 individuals were found, along with pieces of red ocher, suggesting it was used in a ritual. However, this fact changed quite significantly when a recent finding in Africa discovered the intentional burial of a young child, now named Mtoto, dating back almost 80,000 years.

Many scholars believe the earliest human burials are likely to date back over 100,000 years, so this recent finding certainly adds some credence to these beliefs.

What these findings also tell us is that in an environment and lifestyle that would’ve been a far cry from what we have in the 21st century, our cognition, sociality and behaviours were all very similar to us today.

The Earliest Headstones

Through much of our recent existence many things have flowed in and out of fashion across all aspects of our lives and lifestyles.

One thing that has remained a long-time tradition is the way in which we use headstones and other memorials to commemorate lost loved ones.

In years gone by, the earliest headstones would have been a simple stone or wooden marker placed over the grave as a sign of respect and to identify it as a burial site.

Old wooden cross with blue sky

Today, a wide range of headstones and memorials are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials and finishes, with many different decorative options on offer, such as the ability to add symbols, inscriptions, imagery, bespoke headstone etching, and other detailed custom designs.

Although the way in which we create and design memorial headstones has advanced, the purpose remains just the same as it did thousands of years ago.

We have reason to believe that gravestones, or grave markers as they were more commonly known, date back to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Bronze ages around 3,000 – 6,000 years ago.

These grave markers weren’t placed to commemorate each individual life as we do today.

Instead, our historical ancestors would have typically used a megalithic monument – a large prehistoric stone – to mark an entire burial chamber rather than one individual grave.

Expert theologians believe that megalithic monuments had many meanings and functions over the years, including elite burials, mass burials, meeting places, astronomical observatories, shrines, status symbols, and many other uses that we remain unaware of.

Before the Existence of Cemeteries

Before cemeteries, hunter-gatherers would bury the dead in burial plots close to where they lived, often using large holes that had been dug right next to their hut or dwelling.

These plots would be large enough for all family members to be laid to rest together.

It seems our great ancestors took comfort in knowing that everyone within each family would eventually be laid to rest together, therefore they had no need or thought for individual markers or gravestones.

As far as cemeteries go, you may be surprised to discover that they didn’t come to full prominence until the 17th – 18th centuries, although plenty of historical cemeteries and communal burials sites do exist across many countries, cultures and religions.

Some of the Oldest Known Cemeteries

  • Gross Fredenwalde in Germany – dates back circa. 8,500 years
  • Kerameikos in Athens, Greece – dates back circa. 3,000 BCE
  • Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel – dates back circa. 3,000 years
  • Udegram Cemetery in Swat Valley, Pakistan – dates back circa. 2,500 – 3,000
  • Okunoin Cemetery in Mount KĹŤya, Japan – dates back circa. 819 CE
  • Heiliger Sand in Worms, Germany – dates back circa. 11th century
  • Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic – dates back circa. 15th century
  • Myles Standish Burial Ground in Duxbury, Massachusetts, USA – dates back circa. 17th century
Kerameikos cemetery in Athens, Greece

Kerameikos Cemetery by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Creative Commons

We can’t pinpoint when the very first gravestone was installed and erected, but back in 2013 scientists reported that the first evidence of floral tributes on a grave, along with sage, mint and other plants, took place almost 14,000 years ago at a pre-historic burial site in Israel.

More evidence that symbolically marking the place of a burial site has been with us for a very long time.

Emergence of Churchyard Burials and Popularity in Headstones

The relationship between churches and burials became widespread during the 17th century, and this was the catalyst for the strong growth in headstone popularity during this time.

An increasing number of tombstones and monuments crafted from slate or sandstone were erected in churchyard burial sites to commemorate lost loved ones, though early burials containing simple, slender headstones would’ve stood as a sign of wealth.

Graveyard outside a church

From this point onwards, unique inscriptions could be found carved into the slate.

During the 18th century, some graves were also marked with a small footstone to distinguish the foot end of the grave.

These footstones were usually made from the same material as the headstone and would sometimes develop into full kerb sets that marked the perimeter of the entire grave.

Whereas the headstones would contain lengthier inscriptions, the footstones were much smaller so would rarely be annotated with more than the deceased’s initials and year of death, and occasionally the name of a memorial mason and plot reference number.

Introduction of Inscriptions on Headstones

There are a few candidates when it comes to where the oldest carved gravestone in the world is and who it belongs to.

In the Myles Standish Burial Ground – the oldest maintained cemetery in the United States – the carved gravestone of Jonathan Alden Sr. has been preserved since it was found there in the early 1800’s following his death in 1697.

While the Lligwy Burial Chamber on Anglesey in North Wales dates to the late Neolithic period. Deep grooves in the limestone which are rendered unreadable today could potentially have significant meaning to those who may have carved them all those years ago, although less exciting theories claim the grooves are simply erosion from rainfall and nothing more.

What we can be more certain of is that by the 19th century, gravestones in the UK were commonplace across much of society, and inscriptions were becoming more detailed and far more widespread.

Loved ones began to inscribe a few words into the headstones of the deceased to provide a better understanding of who they were.

Old headstone inscription

Simple yet unique information such as their name, date of birth, date of death and perhaps a religious or sentimental note would be inscribed into the headstone material so that family and friends could better commemorate and celebrate their life.

We have learned a great deal about how lives were lived throughout history from the stories and snippets of information that these historic headstones and burials tell, making them important for not just the families and friends who missed them dearly at the time, but for human history.

A little later, during the Victorian era (1837 – 1901), inscriptions became even more descriptive, and monuments were crafted more elaborately. Popular materials such as marble, wood, iron and granite were used to create a range of different memorials – people had options and could now design and inscribe a headstone that would honour their lost loved ones as they saw fit.

The names of relatives were now also often added over the years, creating a chronological timetable of a family’s entire passing through the decades.

Old gravestone with husband wife inscription
Old weathered headstones with inscriptions in cemetery

Headstone Materials Across the Classes

Initially, it would be the upper class alone who could afford to commemorate the deceased in the finest way.

The lower classes would have to make do with what they had, and that was unlikely to include access to a range of beautiful materials and costly inscription skills.

Over time, the Victorian era helped change this, as the popularisation of burials and modern memorials quickly became a strong tradition that most people opted for.

Historically Popular Headstone Materials

  • Wood 
  • Fieldstone 
  • Sandstone 
  • Limestone 
  • Slate 
  • Marble 
  • Iron 
  • Bronze 
  • Granite
Popular headstone materials

Materials like marble was often used to create memorial headstones due to its aesthetic beauty and appeal, as well as its ability to outlast wood – marble would’ve no doubt also come at quite an expense.

We would later learn that the softness of marble stone doesn’t lend itself well for long-term memorialisation purposes, so different grades of granite soon became the main staple material across the memorial industry, and it remain much the same today.

With that said, people are still bowled over by a stunning marble finish, so marble memorials do remain an option for those who can see beyond its shortcomings.

Other notable materials that were used include fieldstones, limestone, iron and bronze.

Bronze headstones were particularly popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though certain variations, such as white bronze headstones, are a lot rarer.

There is a difference in composition between the two, with bronze headstones composed of copper, tin and small amounts of lead and zinc, while white bronze headstones are composed of pure zinc.

Cemeteries tend to prefer granite and bronze headstones as they often believe they are more aesthetically pleasing within their grounds, plus both materials are very low maintenance.

What Headstone Materials Are Available Today?

Today, monumental masons offer a tremendous range of materials from which to create a headstone or other memorial. For starters, there is a wonderful variety of granite and stone headstone materials available in many different grades and colours.

Here at Mossfords, we’re based in the heart of South Wales with branches across Cardiff and Cwmbran, so we’re in a fortunate position whereby we can also create memorials using high quality locally sourced Welsh slate and Forest of Dean stone.

Headstone Materials We Offer at Mossfords

War Memorials and Monuments Pay Tribute

Nowadays, memorials stretch beyond those who are closest to us.

People can travel to visit stunning war memorials that pay tribute to brave soldiers, such as the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire or the Blaenafon War Memorial Clock tower in South Wales, or appreciate statues of significant figures in society, such as the Aneurin Bevan statue in Cardiff.

National War Memorial monument in Cathays Park, Cardiff
National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire
Blaenavon War Memorial Clock Tower

All across the world monuments and memorials stand to commemorate and remember those we have lost from so many events. From wars, natural disasters and tragedies. We find some form of peace and strength through a visual mark of respect that we can physically visit, remember and pay true tribute.

Modern Bespoke Headstones and Memorials

From their humble wooden beginnings to bespoke designs that are beautifully crafted thanks to both human skill and the advancement of today’s technology, memorials have evolved to include memorial vases, full kerb sets, commemorative plaques and much more – all with the same sentiments and meaning that they had thousands of years ago.

The traditional craft carried out by skilled monumental stonemasons will continue to evolve and the options for gravestones and memorials will no doubt continue to grow.

Modern headstones and memorials
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