The term gravestone emerged from a Jewish custom in which the visitors to a grave used to place stones at the head as a way to honor the deceased. This custom, in turn, was inspired from an incident wherein a Jewish person broke the Sabbath in order to write a note so as solve a crime. Later, he felt guilty for the act, even though it was necessary. Thus, after thorough contemplation, he decided that his grave should be ‘stoned’ after his death. So, the tradition of placing stones on a grave became popular.
Gravestones are also known as grave markers, headstones, and tombstones. In earlier times when there were no cemeteries, people used to have burial plots near their family homes. These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood, apparently, as a way to keep the dead from rising. They were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved using large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. Thus, they started engraving the headstones with a small epitaph or a few words about the deceased whether written by the individual himself or by someone else. Plus, they bore details like the date of birth and date of death of the departed loved one.
The greatest advantage of this tradition is that by reading the inscription on a gravestone, one can derive information about the deceased and trace out his or her family history. For example Alexander Pope eulogized Sir Isaac Newton with the following couplet:
“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.”
The Victorian era (1837-1901) greatly emphasized customs and practices associated with death. This period paved the way for elaborate tombstones and headstones. The cemeteries appeared more like parks as they had such lavish and decorated gravestones. In addition, the gravestones also included sculptured designs, artwork and symbols. And extensive list of symbols and their meanings can be found at www.memorials.com/Headstones-Symbolism-information.php
These symbols denoted religious beliefs, social class, occupation, and several other aspects of the life of the deceased. Unlike these, most tombstone symbols from the Colonial period reflected fear of afterlife. They believed that only a few people would be allowed in the Heaven after death and the rest would be categorized as sinners.
Interestingly, in the 18th century, there emerged a short-lived burial practice of covering the graves with iron cages (mortsafes). This strange practice, though, died out by the end of the Victorian era. The most popular materials for gravestones during this era were marble (1780-1930), granite (1860-until date), iron, and wood.
Earlier, gravestones were used only by the middle and upper classes. However, after the emergence of the new Protestant theology, even lower classes started using grave markers for commemorating the life of a departed loved one.
The term gravestone, by the way, emerged from a Jewish custom in which the visitors to a grave used to place stones at the head as a way to honor the deceased. This custom, in turn, was inspired from an incident wherein a Jew broke the Sabbath in order to write a note so as solve a crime. Later, he felt guilty for the act, even though it was necessary. Thus, after thorough contemplation, he decided that his grave should be ‘stoned’ after his death. So, the tradition of placing stones on a grave became popular.
The International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association (ISCGA) provides more information.
Examples of17th, 18th and 19th Century Cape Cod Gravestones can be found here: http://www.capecodgravestones.com