The custom of erecting ornately carved headstones over graves is a surprisingly recent innovation which found fashion in the 18th century. That's not to say that older headstones do not exist, any cathedral close will belie such a grandiose claim, but the tombs you'll find there are mainly of wealthy local dignitaries or men of the cloth. Few memorials exist of more lowly beings. The general populous simply could not afford to invest in dying while living was such a trial and, with a life expectancy of a mere forty years and general illiteracy, there was little point in erecting expensive tombs with epitaphs which few could read.
It was during the Georgian period that tombstones were erected in the graveyard as permanent monuments. Their handsome sandstone memorials; the material chosen to enhance the setting of the burial place and to blend in with the stone-built churches, were flamboyantly carved with allergorical scenes. Grinning skulls nestled among wingéd cherubs (either smiling, weeping, or blowing trumpets, depending on how the fancy took your nearest and dearest), while flowery epitaphs expounded the worthiness and triumphs of the dearly departed.
The reflective and conservative sobriety of God-fearing Victorians saw the wane of these funeral flights of fancy. Imposing granite monuments, hewn and polished to reflect the clean lines of classical architecture and embellished with gothic motifs, sculptured leafage and decorated caps, became the order of the day. Stonemasons nicknamed the monolithic and cripplingly heavy designs, 'Undertaker's Gothic'.
Angels were hughly fashionable; gazing skyward, pointing meaningfully to the heavens, clasping wreaths, or even lying distraught across the grave, they were so sought-after that vast quantities were shipped from Italy: Italian White Marble is a comparatively soft stone and the ideal material for carving into shapes like books and figures.
Here, in an an abridged chapter of "The Sexton's Book of Tales", are some of the more popular headstone symbols and their explanations. Many you'll find in a cemetery near you. The next time you happen to tiptoe amongst tombstones, take a closer look - you'll be surprised at the wealth of information they display about the lives of the people who have gone before.