Tombstone Art & Symbols

An excerpt from
Sexton's Book of Tales


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 poAngelint 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'.
During the early 1800's, Egyptian-style obelisks, adorned with lotus-buds and hieroglyphics became immensely popular, mirroring the vast quantities of sepulchral art and funeral pieces which were being pillaged from the temples and tombs on the Nile and shipped by the boatload for public display in British museums.

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.
Many of the 'Magnificent Seven', the ring of grand cemeteries built on the outskirts of London following the success of the burial grounds of Highgate and Kensal Green, maintained their own stonemason's yard and the cemetery company rulebooks contained clauses governing the style and size of monuments to be erected. One of the London Cemetery Company's rules at Highgate Cemetery stipulated that if a burial plot was purchased near to a pathway, a large and necessarily expensive tomb was required to grace its position. Wordy epitaphs also succumbed to fashion and were replaced by the use of subtle, though apposite, symbols: cabalistic emblems whose now forgotten meanings divulge a secret language of mourning.

Graveyard tourHere, 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.