Tombstone ~ 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks ~ #21

SONY DSCSince January of this year I have been writing a weekly blog called “Thursday at the Cemetery”, and my first thought was, “I have tons of tombstones saved, this should be easy!”. Then I realized, I needed all those photos for future blogs, “insert sad face here!” So, I decided to go in a different direction.

I have always loved cemeteries, especially old ones with all the ancient stones that seemed to have some character to them. Growing up my family would visit the local Cemetery at least once a month, taking flowers or potted plants for the people we knew. My Mom would even pack a picnic lunch and we would sit on wooden benches in one section of the grounds and eat our sandwiches. I thought this is what everyone did and as a result, I never developed a “fear” of Cemeteries.

Obviously taking pictures of Headstones for “Find-a-Grave” came naturally for me. I find a gravehave taken 1000s of photos since I first started doing it 6 years ago. My daughter and two Grandsons often accompany me and the boys tend to ask a lot of questions. “Why does that one have a tree on it?” “Do all Cemeteries have grass like this?” “How come that one is completely covered with cement?”

To be honest, they have asked some questions that I didn’t have an answer for, so I had to spend some time researching. As I was looking for answers to their questions I even came up with some facts I had often wondered about myself. Here are some of the interesting facts that I discovered:

1. Before the 19th Century, there were no actual Graveyards. Most people were buried on Church_Building_and_Cemeterytheir family property or just outside the town limits. Later they began to bury people in the Churchyard which were usually fenced in and they felt very desolate. By the mid 19th Century most Churchyards were getting full and more people were living in larger towns. As a result, they began setting aside land specifically for Cemeteries. These were well maintained and had grass, trees, and flowers giving it a “park-like” feel. It was then that people began the tradition of picnicking in the Cemetery.

2. Up until the 18th Century, a lot of graves were covered by iron cages called “mortsafes”mortsafe or were totally covered with stones. There are 4 reasons given for this tradition:

* To keep animals from digging up the corpse

* To keep people from walking or sitting on the graves

* To keep the deceased from becoming a vampire or zombie

* To keep the grave from being ravaged by grave robbers.

3. Headstone engravers faced their own “Y2K problem” when still-living people, as many as 500,000 in the United States alone, pre-purchased headstones with pre-carved death dates beginning 19–.

wooden HS4. During the Civil War, the headstones were made of wood and cost about $1.73 apiece. After discovering that the wood deteriorated over a 5 year period and realizing how much it would cost to replace them so often they decided that they should be replaced with a more permanent marble or galvanized iron marker.

5. Arlington Cemetery began as a Cemetery for Union Soldiers only. In 1898, Presidentarlington William McKinley, a former Union soldier, spoke in Atlanta, Georgia, and said, “In the spirit of Fraternity it is time for the North to share in the care of the graves of former Confederate soldiers.” In consequence of his speech, by an act of the United States Congress, a portion of Arlington National Cemetery was set aside for the burial of Confederate soldiers. At this time 267 Confederate remains from and near Washington, DC was removed and re-interred at this new site at Arlington

6. There are several reasons that there are many unmarked graves:

* If the deceased was a bad person.

* If the deceased was an executed criminal.

*If the deceased was a pauper.

* If the deceased wanted anonymity.

skull-and-crossbones7. Puritans who were known for their tremendous piety, often had that Skull and Crossbones put on their Headstones. It was a reminder that they had gone to Heaven but if you did not believe as they did you would go to hell. It was called a “Memento Mori” which is Latin for “Remember that you will die”.

8. Many famous people made the decision to be buried in unmarked graves for a variety of reasons. Among those who chose no markings are John Wayne, George C. Scott, Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Mozart, Bessie Smith, and John Belushi.

9. You can learn a lot about the deceased by the symbols displayed on their Headstone. symbol_bird_gravestoneDuring Colonial times the person’s occupation was depicted by symbols. A gardener may have a shovel or rake, a carpenter may have a saw and a sheriff may have a star. There were also symbols for those who died young, mothers, lost their lives in a battle, or who were martyred.

Regardless of how a person feels about Cemeteries and burial plots, it would be impossible to work on your Family History without having to deal with them.

OH, BY THE WAY…..I haven’t “picnicked” in a Cemetery since I was 12 years old!


I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Tombstone ~ 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks ~ #21

    1. Some of my husbands family are buried in an old cemetery here in AZ. Some of the graves have them so I was curious and looked it up. There are so many interesting facts etc about gravestones!

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