From Then to Now: The History of the Headstone

The headstone has something of a British institution. Seeing them poking up among dappled fields in villages or breaking up the streets in our cities, there is something unquestionably pleasurable about wandering through the grey stacked graveyards and cemeteries, stopping to read an inscription or admire a memorial or listen to the birdsong and rustle of squirrels scampering from trunk to limb. But how has the headstone become such a treasured part of our nation? Join us as we delve into the history of the headstone

Where does the name headstone come from?

In the stone age, when humans were still nomads, the wandering tribe’s dead would be buried and a great stone or boulder rolled on top of the grave. These ‘gravestones’ were used to not only mark the place but were meant to stop the dead from rising and animals from scavenging their remains. But as time wore on the boulders and stones were replaced with more sophisticated grave markers called ‘dolmens.’ The most distinguished grouping of dolmens dates back over 2,000 BC is known by the moniker ‘Stonehenge,’ although why the humans that created that structure decided to use stone from hundreds of miles away is something that still baffles today. Like a great deal of our modern history, we can attribute the classic headstone to the Victorians, when they began to bury their dead with ornate and carved headstones, adding inscriptions and epigraphs to their loved ones’ graves.

When do headstones date from?

The earliest grave markers can be traced back to the Celtic and Roman cultures of 3,000 BCE. Rather than stones used to mark the burial places of individual people, these ancient markers were large, megalithic constructions meant to mark an entire burial chamber. At 39.3 metres (129 ft) high, Sidbury Hill, in Wiltshire, is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe and one of the largest in the world whilst a narrow cave found in a gorge in Somerset has been identified as the oldest cemetery in Britain, used by generations of people from one area in the Mendips just after the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. A nearly 80,000-year-old grave discovered in Africa is the continent’s oldest-known human burial, archaeologists have announced. Those behind the find have christened the remains Mtoto, from the Swahili word for child.

What were the original headstones made from?

Gravestones have been around for thousands of years and began when the deceased was buried near the home. The grave was marked with a stele or marker made from stone or wood. This was usually placed over the grave as a mark of respect and to stop the deceased from rising. The headstone was placed at the head of the grave but sometimes also at the foot which indicated the length of the grave and respect for the deceased. In pagan times, the gravestone was west-facing pointing towards the rising sun but in Christian and Jewish burials they were east-facing according to biblical beliefs.

What are headstones commonly made of?

Typically, materials such as granite, marble and several types of limestone are commonly used to create and craft headstones. Granite and bronze are currently the most popular materials to use for headstones, but of course, that may change. There are many different materials that headstones can be made from; this is entirely up to the craftsmen of the headstone, the family of the deceased and the deceased themselves. Once the materials and design have been chosen, the stone will be cut and drilled into the desired shape. The edges will also be polished for a smooth finish. More often than not the stone will also be sprayed with steam in order to remove any glue or stencils on the headstone.

South Wales Headstones

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Every headstone and memorial is made to order, handcrafted by our skilled memorial stonemasons. We work with you, ensuring that a fitting memorial and inscription that poignantly remembers and reflects your loved one is created.