9 Interesting Facts About Cemeteries and Headstones

Tucson  South Lawn CemeteryI have always loved Cemeteries, especially old ones with all the ancient stones that seemed to have 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 natural for me. I have taken over 1000 photos in the last year alone. 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 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 their family property or just Church cemeteryoutside the town limits. Later they began to bury people in the Church yard which were usually fenced in and they felt very desolate. By the mid 19th Century most Church yards 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.

 mortsafes

  1. 2.Up until the 18th Century a lot of graves were covered by iron cages called “mortsafes” or were totally covered with stones. There are 4 reasons given for this tradition 1) to keep animals from digging up the corpse 2)to keep people from walking or sitting on the graves 3) to keep the deceased from becoming a vampire or zombie 4) to keep the grave from being ravaged by grave robbers.
  1. Headstone engravers faced their own “Year 2000 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 headstone

  1. During the Civil War the headstones were made of wood and cost about $1.73 a piece. 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.
  1. Arlington Cemetery began as a Cemetery for Union Soldiers only. In 1898, President 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 to his speech, by 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, D.C. were removed and re-interred at this new site at Arlington.
  1. There are several reasons that there are unmarked grave. 1) If the deceased was a bad person. 2) If the deceased was an executed criminal.  3) If the deceased was a pauper.   4) If the deceased wanted anonymity. 

 Memento Mori PIC. with hourglass

  1. 7. 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’.

                                                                                                                                                                                               mozart

  1. 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.
  1. You can learn a lot about the deceased by the symbols displayed on their Headstone. During 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 life in a battle or who were martyred. Here is a link to the Symbols and their meanings: http://tinyurl.com/47zsjfp

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, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: 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.

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12 Comments

Filed under Ancestry, Cemetery, Family History, Family Search, Genealogy, History, Mortsafe, Personal Stories, U.S. President

12 responses to “9 Interesting Facts About Cemeteries and Headstones

  1. ruthrawls

    Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, is a park-like setting also. I have a photo of my grandmother holding my mother as an infant, taken at the Old Gray Cemetery. When I was a child, I first saw that photo, I thought they’d been to a funeral, but now I think they were simply on an outing. These things can be confusing to children. Thanks for writing!

  2. Niki Davis

    This is a great post, thanks for sharing! I’ve been fascinated with cemeteries (okay, grave markers!) for as long as I can remember.

  3. A very nice post today. I enjoyed reading it. You are so right if we do family genealogy we all end up in a cemetery or two. Never had a picnic in one. Most of the time I am way too tired and dirty, and running from the insects.

  4. Thank you for sharing. There were things I didn’t know. even though I don’t picnic in grave sites when I go to visit deceased family members I find the grave site a very peaceful place. It’s like no one else is there except God,the deceased soul , and myself.
    Just two questions. why do babies have their own section ? second other than lack of space isn’t it degrading to have a total stranger’s soul buried on top of you?
    May God continue to bless you.

    • Mary,

      Good questions. The baby section is provided so it can be more cost effective. Since they don’t take up much room they can take one area and slice it up into smaller sites. However infant headstone cost just as much as larger ones! I had a Grandson die about 17 years ago and my husband and I bought the stone, It was very costly!

      As fir two people buried in one plot, I too think it is degrading. They started doing it in smaller cemeteries that were running out of room. Then as the cost of plots increased people started opting for this to save moey. Believe it or not, here in AZ, doing this will save you over $4000!

      Thank you for reading the Blog!

      Valerie

  5. EJ Murray

    Very informative. I noticed an error in item #8: Jim Belushi is still alive. His brother, John, died in 1982.

  6. Mom

    Do you follow “Marble Towns”? I love her photos. They’re always beautiful and she travels all over the country and photographs interesting grave sites

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