Headstones, also called tombstones or gravestones, are memorial stones set at the head of a grave of a loved one. Originally a headstone was the stone lid of a stone coffin, or the coffin itself, and a gravestone was the stone slab that was laid over a grave. Now, all three terms are also used for any type of marker placed at the head of a grave. Once it was common to use a headstone and a smaller stone a short distance away called the foot stone. Foot stones were usually made of the same material as the headstone but were much smaller. The foot stone was usually inscribed with the initials of the deceased. Now in days, only headstones are used to mark the grave.
Materials for headstones can vary. For instance, from 1861 until around 1873, wooden headstones were used to mark the graves of Civil War soldiers. Due to the lack of durability of this type of headstone, they were changed out for a more durable material, such as marble. Marble was a popular choice by the Greeks for headstones. Eventually, we learned that it is a soft stone and not as ideal for memorialization purposes. We also now know acid rain can cause severe damage to poorer grades of marble. Granite become a popular material to use for headstones, especially among the Victorian period. The variety of colors and crystalline textures, in addition to the durability, make granite an ideal choice for headstones. Bronze headstones are equally as popular as granite headstones, although certain variations, such as white bronze headstones and sandstone headstones, are much rarer. The difference between bronze headstones and white bronze headstones is their composition. While bronze headstones are composed of copper and tin with small amounts of lead and zinc, white bronze headstones are pure zinc. They were given the name White Bronze to make them more appealing to customers. The zinc carbonate is what gives the headstones their characteristic bluish-gray color. These two types of headstones were used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many cemeteries prefer granite headstones or bronze headstones in keeping with the overall aesthetics of their ground, as both types of headstones are relatively low maintenance. Flush headstones or grave markers are becoming more and more popular, as they do not obstruct the grounds as much as upright memorials do, which helps the keep the grounds of the cemetery in better condition.
Headstones also hold an important part in religious ceremonies and traditions. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have practiced burials for centuries. However, Muslims believe in a humble passing -- one without flowers or headstones. Historically, the cremation of Buddhists was a standard ritual, but, more and more, burial with headstones is becoming the norm among Chinese Buddhists. With Hindus, however, cremation remains a long-standing tradition. Families, while following tradition of a simple passing, can still utilize a simple bronze or granite headstone to memorialize their loved one. In fact, some headstones are made specifically to accommodate cremation burials. In Catholic and Christian religions, families find great comfort in placing a religious symbol on the grave marker of their loved one. Some of the popular images seen on these headstones, such as crosses, angels, or religious symbols like the Christian fish, are meant to signify protection and faith.
Headstones, regardless of their material, can offer genealogical information that can be valuable to members of families who have left the ancestral home of their forbears. We have seen how strongly the lack of this small record can affect many. Many descendents of European families lost significant genealogical information during the Bubonic Plague and worse, the Holocaust, because of a deprivation of headstones. In the early to mid-seventeenth century, it is believed that headstones for the first Dutch settlers along the lower Hudson River were limited to the wealthy -- again, suspending ancestral ties. Headstones also often hold an inscription of some sort, pertaining to an aspect of the person's life, whether it be religious or just a sentimental note. We have been able to learn a lot about how people lived throughout history from the stories their headstones tell. Headstones are not only important to the families whom the deceased was related to, but to human history as a whole.
As the American landscape continues to flourish as one grand mosaic of different cultures, it is extremely important to utilize headstones as a link to ones’ history and heritage. A headstone can be a very important relic of a life past for our future generations for many, many years to come. With a variety of granite headstones or bronze headstones that are available, one can choose a headstone to best reflect the personality of their loved one.
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