History of American Burials



A Short History of Place, Materials, Style & Meaning  
By Victoria Chick


With Thanksgiving coming up, one of the things I am grateful for are people who kept historical records and written journals that allow people like me to have our questions answered about the past.  And with Halloween just last month, there were questions about grave markers and cemeteries that were recently answered for me thanks to the Atlas Preservation Company in Connecticut.


Of course, burial has long been the most common way of disposing of bodies and, beginning historically, with the most important people in each era, some surface reminders of who was buried were constructed or placed on the site. The most durable materials available were generally chosen for markers, but the technology available to move, inscribe, or polish those materials also played a big role in the stylistic development of burial markers.   This article will be limited to the United States from Colonial times.

In the early 1600s, there were no cemeteries, so family and friends buried the deceased as deeply as possible given the rockiness of the ground or if the ground was frozen or not. Sometimes mounding rocks over the body had to be done. This was seen even during westward expansion in the 1800s to the early 1930s in rocky desert areas. Possibly a crude carving of initials on a native rock would mark the name of the person buried in the first years of the 1600s.

By the mid-1600s skilled stone workers immigrated to the American colonies from Europe. However, the display of their skills was still limited by whatever stone material was found in the area. The primary stones used were soft, like sandstone or slate, and could be found or cut in a rectangular shape called a tablet and usually designed with a curved top. Installed vertically, about 1/3 of the length would be underground to maintain stability. The decoration was limited to low relief stylization of symbols such as angel faces, wings, praying hands, or often with a symbolic death’s head.  The deceased’s name, with birth and death dates, was inscribed, usually along with a statement or poem about their life and relationships.

We think of colonists as being dour, but many inscriptions point to a rude sense of humor. Stone carving was not a full-time endeavor because the population was still small, but by the late 1600s in Boston, and probably New York, the population (hence the death rate ) was able to support several full-time stone carvers.  With the high-quality slate in the Boston area, a gravestone industry grew that shipped grave markers to towns along the Atlantic coast.

The tablet style persisted, though several more types of stone began to be used;  schist, soapstone, sandstone, and its variety, termed brownstone, were easy to carve and have lasted well with minor eroding of inscriptions and designs.  By the 1800s churchyards had become crowded with burials. Vacant areas in towns, used for burial without a permit, were considered health hazards because of vagrants and grave robbers.  A movement began to build planned cemeteries in rural areas near towns. These were platted out with roads, and landscaped with trees, and some had water features such as lakes or fountains. A caretaker was usually hired to maintain the grounds and often lived within the cemetery. Lots were sold so that families could be buried in the same area.  Ownership of property in a cemetery led to purchasing many lots so an edifice tomb or giant monument could mark a burial site.

  • First Resident in the Historic Cemetery in Easton, Pennsylvania
    First Resident in the Historic Cemetery in Easton, Pennsylvania


City parks were a rarity until the late 1800s, so going to the country to have a picnic at a lovely cemetery gravesite was a pleasant family excursion.

In the late 1800s, two things happened to make the use of Monumental Grave Markers a phenomenon of the time. One was the Industrial Revolution that increased the production of metal and the other was the proliferation of railroads and track connections not only to great cities but to small towns as well.  New techniques and tools for stone cutting and putting designs on stone, casting bronze and zinc sculpture, and finding more quarry sources made prices come down so that large cemetery monuments were no longer limited to the very rich. Rail access made delivery of any size monument possible at a reasonable cost within a relatively short time.

Monuments might be embellished with profiles of the deceased in cameo style.  Granite and white marble became the preferred hardstone used for markers. Hard stones like granite and marble allowed for more sculptural carving with many larger monuments displaying complete three-dimensional figures. Large, precisely cut stone blocks were topped with progressively smaller stone blocks and surmounted with a cross, urn, or angels.  Urns, sometimes carved with a cloth draped partially over it, were symbolic containers of the soul.  Archeology finds during the 1800s, and increased travel influenced the shape and carved symbols to include elements of Classical Greek and Roman architecture such as leafy vines and graceful symmetrical drapery as seen on grave monuments beginning in the mid-late 1800s.  Obelisk shapes from Egypt were adopted in America for grave markers and implied rebirth.

Metal sculpture became more common after the Civil War when sculptures of generals and heroes were commissioned. The Monumental Bronze Company and subsidiaries in the U.S. and Canada produced the most commonly found items using a unique methodology that included a sandblasted finish to imitate the mat appearance of stone. Marketed as superior to stone in terms of durability, their products were referred to as “white bronze.” They included thousands of markers, custom-made effigies of the dead, off-the-shelf statues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, and enormous Civil War memorials of granite block bases crowned by cast metal statues of soldiers.

Some 20th-century casting companies sold zinc statues of soldiers and firemen painted in imitation of bronze to veterans’ groups and municipal governments. A naturalistically painted or bronzed stag, which could be encircled by tombstones of members of the Benevolent Order of Elks was sold to many Elks chapters.  Cast-iron fountains with classicizing zinc statues were occasionally placed in cemeteries, originally painted light colors in imitation of stone. By the early 20th century, even as production by other companies waned, the Daprato Statuary Company in Chicago introduced copper-plated zinc Crucifixion Groups for Roman Catholic cemeteries. The most common damage to zinc cemetery monuments is breakage of the brittle metal and separation at seams where components were joined at the foundry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, photographic portraits began appearing on gravestones. These were porcelain plaques with a photographic image transferred to them and fired. Over the years the process has improved to be weather and fade resistant. Seeing a photograph in an oval frame on the gravestone can be rather startling the first time encountered.  In some cases, a formal photograph of the deceased’s family with the deceased in its coffin was taken at the burial site, and the photo was placed on the gravestone. This practice seems to have been most common when it was a child that died.

The process was patented in 1854 when two French photographers, Bulot and Cattin, developed a way to adhere a photographic image to porcelain or enamel by firing it in a kiln. The original ceramic pictures were done in black and white and then mounted on gravestones.  The process caught on throughout Eastern and Southern Europe, and Latin America. It was first used in the United States by Jewish and Italian immigrants who were already familiar with it.

By the turn of the century, this type of personalization was becoming very popular and available around the world.  The 1929 Montgomery Ward & Company Monuments catalog sold ceramic pictures for gravestones and described them as eternal portraits that “endow the resting place of the dead with a living personality.”

Catalog sales of personalized grave markers were undertaken ( no pun intended) by the Sears Company in its Fall 1900 Catalogue.  Simple, two-piece marble markers up to 3 piece pillar monuments could be ordered and inscribed for an extra 2-6 cents per inscribed letter.  Sears continued selling cemetery monuments by catalog through 1949.

Memorializing the death of a family member or friend is universal whether in the mind or with a stone. During colonial times, the early years of the United States, the late 1800s, into the 20th Century, and today, grave markers and monuments serve to bind generations together and to let all of us glimpse at the importance attached to each abbreviated life.
Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and was awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at  https://victoriachick.com/


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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico.

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