Lindsey Palka’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
Who likes cemeteries? Cemeteries, as a rule, are not very popular places. Today they are pretty well ignored (with a few famous exceptions) unless people are attending a burial or visiting a family stone. But this hasn’t always been the case.
A graveyard can be a great place to explore local history and genealogy, or just take a peaceful autumn walk. So let’s grab our coats and cameras and head out to the nearest cemetery to learn about local history! I will teach you how to read a cemetery so you have a better idea of what you’re looking at and can impress others with your knowledge. There are a few guidelines we should remember to follow when exploring graveyards, in the interest of safety and courtesy:
1. Be respectful. Society has deemed that cemeteries are quiet places of rest, so when exploring, please keep that in mind—try to avoid shouting in glee when you find a particularly awesome stone, especially if you’re visiting an active cemetery. Avoid walking directly over graves, as this is both frowned-upon and considered bad luck by the superstitious among us (headstones are at the head of the grave, so walking between graves or closely behind headstones is usually the safest bet).
2. Obey all posted rules, including (at almost all cemeteries) no dogs. Please don’t get kicked out of a cemetery after I encouraged you to go and explore.
3. Be careful. Cemeteries are often in isolated areas, and this is the kind of activity that’s more fun with a buddy anyway. Try to rope a friend into exploring with you. Abandoned cemeteries or ones that have not been well-kept can be dangerous–with sunken places, tumbled headstones, and other hazards–so watch your step as well.
4. Don’t damage any gravestones. Take plenty of photos, but avoid stone rubbing or putting anything onto the stones themselves, as this can be damaging.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a large, famous cemetery, there will probably be a map at the entrance and perhaps some information about the park–more if it’s a tourist destination. Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, Highgate Cemetery in London, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts are probably some of the most famous (excluding military cemeteries like Arlington National Cemetery and battlefield cemeteries). But most of us will be visiting smaller, local cemeteries without maps to guide our way. Once you’re familiar with the basics of a cemetery, you’ll be able to know exactly what you’re looking at without needing a guide.
Like anything else, headstones go in and out of fashion. The oldest stones that most of us are likely to see were made out of slate, for its ease of carving. Generally these were curved or shaped on the top end like the stereotypical children’s-drawing-style of a gravestone. They usually had simple inscriptions, and many also had carvings on the top of a “death’s head” (a skull with wings) or a cherub’s head.
But slate is not the hardest stone, and it tends to break and shatter easily, which is why many of these stones sport broken tops. Much more common in North American cemeteries are marble stones. The switch from slate to marble (known as the slate-to-marble transition among the people who study gravestones for fun and profit–probably a great number than you imagined, but still not very many people) coincided with the early part of the 19th century, which is why very few slate gravestones are seen in the parts of North America that were not widely settled at that time.
Marble is a wonderful stone. There’s a reason it’s been popular for sculpture for many hundreds of years. Beginning in the early 19th century, it became cost-effective to ship it long distances, and suddenly marble was commercially available in North America in immense quantities. Its ease of workability meant that gravestones were no longer limited to a few basic designs. Common choices, among the many options, included a rose (to symbolize the bloom of life), a hand pointing upwards (indicating that the deceased had proceeded decorously to heaven), an open gate (representing the Pearly Gates), a set of clasped hands (whether this was intended to signify a married couple or the deceased grasping the hand of God is a matter of some debate), a Bible open to a certain verse, a pair of praying hands, an angel, a willow and urn (an extremely popular mourning motif through the Georgian period that persisted well into the Victorian era), and dozens more.
Mourning was an important social ritual during the Victorian period, and thus cemeteries had an important place in the social sphere. “Modern” cemeteries arose in the 1820s and 1830s, and were carefully designed to be very different from the traditional churchyard, where bodies were buried in the same graves over and over again. These were thought to be dangerous hotbeds of disease, and often a burial would turn up a bone or two, much to the horror of onlookers. Victorian cemeteries, by contrast, were carefully laid out like parks, with paths, trees, ponds, and benches.
A cemetery was one of the first places where upper- and middle-class Victorian women could wander unchaperoned and unmolested. Cemeteries were thought to be extensions of the home (of which women were the chatelaines and guardians, of course), and hence an appropriate place for women to attend at their leisure. Women took full advantage of this freedom, and frequently walked and talked with their friends as they would in an ordinary public park, without worrying that men would bother or accost them.
While mourning and ritual surrounding death was becoming an even bigger part of the social routine, grave markers began to grow larger and more creative. Wealthy families began to put up obelisks and large monuments, including sculptures of crosses and angels. Occasionally you will spot a truly unusual piece of sculpture dating from the sentimental late Victorian period, such as the sculpture of an empty chair on a child’s grave, or a sculpted dog forever waiting for his master.
The First World War, oddly enough, dealt a major blow to mourning culture. Just as extreme mourning clothing was no longer dictated for women, sentimental marble tombstones began to decline in popularity as well. Simpler and less elaborate stones made out of granite and polished granite grew more popular, and marble stones featuring flowers, angels, and so on began to seem old-fashioned and quaint.
This period also saw the rise of “lawn” cemeteries. While the Victorians felt that a cemetery with hundreds of marble stones of every shape and size was a beautiful and affecting sight, people in the early part of the 20th century felt differently. “Memorial parks,” as they were known in some places, were considered to be much more tasteful. These featured only stones flat to the ground, creating an unbroken sweep of lawn thought to be much more pleasing to the eye. Granite and polished granite stones laid flat to the ground often featured only a name, but some included modern designs in keeping with the zeitgeist of the year of the burial.
Most cemeteries today are “mixed,” meaning that they feature both flat and raised grave markers. Modern grave markers are usually made out of different varieties of polished granite. Lawn cemeteries are quite common, especially in the West.
Because cemeteries are so closely associated with local history and culture, there are uncountable variations and unusual sights. In some pioneer cemeteries, particularly in the West, one may occasionally spot a gravestone with a sliding glass window (almost invariably broken). The idea was that the paper could contain a much more detailed account of the deceased’s life and times, but this idea was destined to fail as it proved nearly impossible to make an airtight, watertight glass that would not break. Only a few stones with these sliding panels remain.
In the American Midwest, a fashion persisted for a few years in the 1870s and 1880s for monuments made out of zinc, known euphemistically as “white bronze.” These monuments looked from a distance to be exactly like marble, but featured even greater detail. Generally now they can be spotted either by their unusually well-maintained engravings or by a rusty spot by a rivet. To knock gently on them produces an echoing reverberation—they are hollow inside.
In the American South, African American communities sometimes chose to decorate graves with broken glass to produce a light-catching effect. These are very rare and hard to spot nowadays unless you are visiting a private or family graveyard, as glass containers are outlawed in most cemeteries. Occasionally it is possible to visit a preserved slave cemetery as well, which usually feature gravestones made exclusively of local stone and hewn by hand. In cemeteries in the South that have Civil War burials, some headstones will face the opposite direction—north or south, depending on the leanings of the deceased.
Many cemeteries did not survive the massive postwar building boom in North America in the state their original founders might have wished. Smaller cemeteries in many suburbs can now be found just on the edges of strip malls, or on the corners of busy intersections, when at their founding they were located near churches or in open fields.
When examining gravestones, a flashlight can be used to illuminate or create shadows, making faded engravings easier to read. Bring along the largest mirror you can carry easily and lay it so it creates a 90-degree angle with the surface of the stone–the reflection should show the engraving in much greater clarity! And don’t forget your camera. Digital pictures can also be a great boon to researchers, since playing with contrast and other features can make it easier to read a faded stone.
When exploring your local cemeteries, always be respectful. Cemeteries are not only a final resting place for the dead. They often give us a fascinating look into the tastes of an era, as well as its dangers–as you will see if you visit almost any cemetery that accepted burials prior to 1920, as it will include many, many stones to children as well as young women who died in childbirth. These places are free to visit and interesting to explore, and now you’re equipped with the tools to interpret what you’re looking at. Enjoy your walk through history, and as you explore our cemeteries today remember the Victorians who gave us these modern cemeteries in the first place.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.