A Central Memorial Tradition
While they have changed in style over the years, tombstones remain a central memorial tradition.
As cemeteries have evolved in recent times, so have tombstones. Whereas cemeteries were once simply collections of scattered tombstones – which were often simple, informally chiseled stone sculptures – today’s cemeteries have become what historians call “cultural institutions” – elaborately landscaped, garden-like places that depend upon elaborately designed tombstones to be inviting centerpieces that draw visitors for a wide variety of reasons. The beautiful structure of most tombstones today makes a stroll through one of today’s cemeteries reminiscent of a walk through a lovely park. That’s dramatically different from the macabre feel generated by the tombstones of yesteryear.
Along with their more elegant design, today’s tombstones often have an entirely different style than previous generations. Tombstones of yesteryear were usually large, up-right pieces of sculpted stone that had written information about the people whose graves they marked. By contrast, most of today’s tombstones are smaller, simpler, plaque-like pieces made of bronze, granite, or a combination of the two, and they are displayed directly on the ground at the head of graves. The up-right tombstones are less common today than they once were because time has shown that they have a tendency to deteriorate and fall over as years pass. Tombstones that are installed at ground level are designed to weather the elements much longer. That is not to say that upright tombstones are no longer available. There are a variety of options for families that are interested in memorializing their love one’s legacy in a more traditional manner.
Today’s tombstones usually come in two varieties: bronze and granite. Bronze tombstones typically include bronze plates with special memorial designs and lettering that name the deceased as well as the dates of birth and death. These plates are then attached to granite bases and then installed in cemeteries as beautiful tombstones. Granite tombstones, meanwhile, are formed from one of the world’s oldest and strongest natural materials, which has been shaped, polished and chiseled into a tombstone that will certainly last for ages.
Upright tombstones offer more options for personalization today than ever. These standing monuments can feature not only the person (or person’s) name and date information, but also elaborate and intricate scene’s eleganty carved into the surface of the stone, a memorial portrait, or even designs that are carved to look and feel three-dimensional. Another popular option is that of the slant markers, also known as pillow top markers, which offer the larger depth of a flat marker, but with still a more noticable appearance that that of a flat memorial.
Besides their obvious emotional value as the markers for the special places in which loved ones are permanently memorialized, tombstones are also valuable to historians who often need to document people’s lives for decades, or even centuries, after deaths have occurred. The study construction of tombstones assures that people will be remembered for such documentation long after the elements have destroyed paper records or technology has made electronic records obsolete.
The tradition of personalized tombstones has a long and rich history and is celebrated, albeit in an ironically humorous fashion, throughout current American pop culture, most notably, of course, in the widely recognized, “What do you want on your tombstone,” advertising campaign of the company that makes the Tombstone brand pizza.
The term tombstones itself may be rooted in a long-held Jewish custom in which visitors to a tomb or grave place stones at the head. This tradition reportedly began centuries ago when a Jewish man broke the Sabbath to write a note that was used to solve a crime. Feeling guilty for the transgression, but knowing that what he had done was necessary, the man asked that his grave be “stoned” upon his death. And so the tradition of tombstones began.