Tombstones: designing and purchasing a (Late 19th Century) period-appropriate cemetery monument.
November 13, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Tombstone symbology and purchase: I'm tasked with designing, purchasing, and securing the installation of headstones for two men (a murderer and his victim) who died in the late 19th-century. What online resources exist that speak to the design and purchasing process and/or could help clarify period-appropriate symbology and appearance?

It's been my good fortune to have never had to buy a tombstone. Researching the process has proven vexing. Please help walk me through it.

I've secured permission from the two cemeteries, and located the (unmarked) graves. Both cemeteries gave recommendations for several monument companies.

I'm handy with many 2D/3D design programs and could deliver project files to the monument companies in almost any format imaginable. (I'm assuming that they use some sort of CNC machine, yes?)

Before I approach the stonecutters, I have two families of question I'd like to research:
  1. Where can I find resources on period-appropriate (1890s) tombstone conventions, including: symbology, design, construction, layout, typeface, etc.
  2. What are the considerations/costs of purchasing a tombstone, and what are the manufacturing processes like? What are the pros/cons of the various materials used and associated costs?
I'd like to keep costs down as much as possible, but get something nice put up; I'll be very thankful for any and all insight you might provide.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I got to buy a tombstone last year. The people who do the actual work are the best people to get started with. They are a service industry and they can tell you what they can and can't handle. We basically flipped through a book that had fonts, had the option to pick extra stuff (images, photo stuff, fancy stuff) and then they handled it. Here were the things to think about

1. You can save money buying stuff from China for the most part
2. The monument company we worked with was known to the cemetery and so the extra stuff like getting the stone installed and whatever else was handled. Otherwise you have to balance the requirements of the cemetery and the specs of the place you are ordering from.
3. Find-a-grave is going to be a good place to look at a zillion different stones from people who died in the time period you're looking at in the location where you are. A lot of places where there are local quarries (mine is one of them) will have native stones that are basically what everyone used. This is not so true in places where this is not the case.
4. The things the monument companies might think would be nice for you may not be what you think is nice (we went with an unfinished stone which was not something they would have suggested because it's not as "nice and was also more expensive because of what we picked) so be firm but at the same time realize the people you are working with are professionals and treat them that way.

One of the interesting things I learned when I was reading a book about old epitaphs is that a few things changed over time. Older tombstones (and I don't know the exact date line here, this is the book I read) would have a bunch of "That guy killed me!" types of things on it whereas in our new more litigious-averse society you'd never see something like that. Might be apropos to your situation. Similarly, older slate-style tombstones were easier to cut and so you'd get people putting more words on them as opposed to granite stones which are a bear.

tl;dr contact these people.
posted by jessamyn at 10:40 AM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I asked my officemate, who knows and has interviewed a lot of people in the historic-preservation community here, to get her take. She said that locally, for the period-appropriate part, you might talk to Lynn Josse, who's affiliated with the Preservation Research Office, UMSL, and the Chatillon-DeMenil House; if it turns out that she doesn't have expertise in this exactly, she can probably point you to someone who does.

Someone else who might have a good handle on this sort of thing is Andrew Weil at the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

And then, this might be moot, depending on where the graves are, but my officemate said you also might talk to the people at Bellefontaine Cemetery, as they would probably be able to show you good period-appropriate examples, give you advice on stone varieties and other appearance questions, and point you to additional local vendors.
posted by limeonaire at 11:08 AM on November 13, 2012

What you're looking for is The Gravestone Girls. Feel free to email them with your specific questions.
posted by BE ADEQUITE at 11:48 AM on November 13, 2012

Tombstone styles varied by location as well as by time period, and of course also according the wealth and status of the individual. Do you have access to these cemeteries? Can you go around and look at other stones from that time period? If you saw some you liked you could take photos and then use those as a starting place in discussing what you want with a salesperson.

My grandparents used to repair and restore abandoned cemeteries as a hobby; if there are people doing similar work in your area, they might be a valuable resource.
posted by mskyle at 12:37 PM on November 13, 2012

This is a good pictorial starting point.

In this case, maybe the victim would have broken branches or a white horse while the murderer would have a black horse.

Some other resources are listed here This page also has links to 2 pdf files (Symbols of the 19th Century, Symbols of the 17th & 18th Centuries)
posted by jaimystery at 1:21 PM on November 13, 2012

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