Tell me about old-timey gravestones
October 17, 2015 2:52 PM   Subscribe

I've been spending Gothic-teenager amounts of time in old cemeteries lately (in the US). I have many spoopy questions about the old-timey headstones I've seen!

1. There's a specific type of headstone I've noticed, and I'm wondering if it has any particular significance.

They're small—no more than a couple of inches thick, and no more than nine inches wide by twelve inches high. They're very plain—a simple block of unornamented stone, either rectangular or with a gently curved top edge. Most distinctively, they're engraved with nothing but two initials—one in each of the two top corners, each followed by a period—like this:
|C.   T.|
|       |
|       |
They don't have dates on them, but I've always seen them near stones from shortly after the Civil War—they seem very closely tied to that period. Sometimes, they have a pair of small bumps or knobs on top, one on each side (the lowercase "n"s in my ASCII art above are a crude representation of this). In one case, I saw several of them behind larger, more ornate stones; the last initials on the small stones matched the last names on the larger ones. (So perhaps they mark the graves of infants?)

Naturally, I haven't had the foresight to snap a photo, and I can't find examples online. However, here's a roughly similar stone I saw today. The stone in this photo, however, has a middle initial (which is unusual for the type of stone I'm talking about), and also seems slightly newer/bigger. The stones I'm asking about look even more utilitarian than this, somehow.

2. I've also started noticing markers which are small, square, stone pillars (about six inches square), engraved on top with one or more initials. Example. Sometimes these also take the form of small obelisks. What's up with those? Would these simply have been used by families who were too poor to afford a more ornate stone? I've also spotted them flanking a much newer stone.

3. In many of the older graveyards I've seen, the graves are very close together—so close that the caskets or vaults must practically be touching. What's up with that? Today, it would be considered disrespectful to disturb an existing grave to inter a new one. And the country was significantly less populated then (especially in the rural areas where one tends to see these cemeteries), so it's not like space was at a premium.

4. I'm curious about who owns and manages some of these small, old cemeteries. Some seem to be associated with a nearby church, but others are just kind of there. One that I explored today was just a small grassy lot by the side of a rural-ish highway, with no signage or anything, surrounded by a low chain-link fence, with a few dozen graves—mostly older, but one (oddly) as recent as 2011. Obviously each cemetery's history and situation is unique, but what typically happens to older cemeteries in non-urban areas, in terms of ownership and management? Presumably they were originally owned by a church or a commercial entity—but if that's still the case, you would never know it by looking at some of them. Is it common for the local government to take ownership of small, old boneyards? Clearly some minimal maintenance is done, if only to prevent weeds from completely overtaking the place—who does that?

5. Are there volunteer organizations who fix up old cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair? Many of the old cemeteries I've seen are in ruinous condition. Stones are commonly toppled or broken. Often some of the smaller, older stones have been piled in a corner somewhere, obviously no longer marking the actual grave, and (apparently) with no effort being made to repair them or restore them to the correct location.

6. If one wished to legitimately obtain a real, antique gravestone (just a small one) as a collector's item, how might one do that? Are they ever sold when remains are disinterred and relocated from old cemeteries? I don't wanna contribute to desecrating someone's great-great-grandpa's tomb, but if they're every commercially available in a way that doesn't upset anyone, I might be interested in buying one.
posted by escape from the potato planet to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure what you're seeing for #1 couldn't be footstones, after the accompanying headstone has been destroyed (limestone, for instance, does not survive well), or fallen over, or just disappeared?

For #5, some old, abandoned cemeteries do eventually get volunteer organizations to take care of them. They're usually specific to the cemetery, I think.
posted by dilettante at 3:19 PM on October 17, 2015

1. These are footstones, and mark the foot of the grave. Think of the grave as a bed, with a headboard/stone and footboard/stone.

2. These smaller square stones mark the corners of the lot or plot, and usually bear the initial of the family's surname.
posted by Knappster at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Cecil Adams has a shockingly comprehensive article that covers many of your questions.
posted by Diablevert at 3:34 PM on October 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

My grandparents used to volunteer with the Maine Old Cemetery Association, and I remember helping them out, cleaning gravestones that were just kind of... out in the woods. They were not necessarily owned by a church or commercial entity... a lot of them were family cemeteries, abandoned when the family left the land.
posted by mskyle at 4:38 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

#4: Here in the Midwest, many families have their own graveyard on the corner of the farm (and its upkeep is part of the family as well). Barring war or flu, the stone's dates match up in generational waves. Most of the 19th century stones are limestone and almost illegible; more prosperous families have recreated their forebears graves in marble (while maintaining the 18th century styles).

Thank you for asking this question, as I've been haunting graveyards at lot in the last year as well.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:41 PM on October 17, 2015

#2: I'm pretty sure those are actually letters marking areas of a gravesite, like battleship except it's not at all in alphanumeric order.
posted by Ferreous at 5:28 PM on October 17, 2015

escape from the potato planet: "4. I'm curious about who owns and manages some of these small, old cemeteries. ... what typically happens to older cemeteries in non-urban areas, in terms of ownership and management? Presumably they were originally owned by a church or a commercial entity—but if that's still the case, you would never know it by looking at some of them. Is it common for the local government to take ownership of small, old boneyards? Clearly some minimal maintenance is done, if only to prevent weeds from completely overtaking the place—who does that?

If it's a farm cemetery, the family that owns it or whoever has since bought the land; if it was a church cemetery, the denomination probably loosely maintains it; if nobody owns it anymore, the village or county will be responsible. Most of these small rural graveyards are maintained by volunteers (as mskyle notes). To dig in a location where there used to be a graveyard, you must get special permission (from a state-level agency -- my husband is the official in my state who signs off on developer permission for these sorts of things, so I get to hear a lot about surprise rural graveyards) and arrange for the transport and preservation of the remains (it is a crime to fail to do so), but there's no special legal obligation to maintain an old family graveyard that happens to be on your land other than by not, you know, plowing it under. Most typically landowners allow access to them by volunteers without any hassle, although I'm sure there are legal disputes here and there. (Generally the descendants of the dead have a right to access the graveyard no matter what, but again, there have been scattered lawsuits.)

5. Are there volunteer organizations who fix up old cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair?"

YES AND THEY ARE DESPERATE FOR YOUR HELP. They are full of people who, like you, are interested in history -- and the local area, and the Civil War, and dead people. My husband is on the board of a very large local cemetery (227 acres, over 70,000 graves, still taking burials) whose managing corporation operated for around 100 years and then failed like 50 years ago; now it's managed by a joint city-county-private entity who all have representatives on the board and all give a certain amount of money to its maintenance, and they rely on a lot of volunteer labor, especially for the older parts of the cemetery. They pay for groundskeepers, but the maintenance of gravestones largely falls to interested volunteers, who have also been slowly, over 20 years, transferring the jumbled 150 years of records (located at the cemetery, local library, city, coroner ... EVERYWHERE) into a cohesive database, and the combing the newspaper's obituary archives and compiling a reliable map of the graves and a list of the dead.

Since this older cemetery is paying for 150 years of maintenance, they've been doing experimenting with some interesting "green" things with their remaining burial spaces, in the hopes they'll keep producing new "burials" -- like "green" burials where the bodies will decay and the space re-used, and ossuary-type vaults.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:45 PM on October 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

One depressing reason for immediate post-Civil War stones being smaller and made of softer stone is that the war completely overwhelmed the funeral and burial capacities of the country. It's why we invented national cemeteries. Also, a lot of families lost one or two generations of breadwinners at once, leaving very little spare money for monuments. It's also a royal pain to get granite and carve it and move it to a different location, and even mortician types managed to die off (or more importantly, lose all their sons.) This is the main reason the cemetery nearest to me has a radically different Civil War section as compared with the other veteran graves and also pre-1860 and post-1875 civilian sections. We have some 1830s monuments in much better shape than 1864-6, as well as a bunch of replacement stones installed starting around 1920.

We also have at least three cemeteries in my area that no one knows for sure who's responsible for; it comes up periodically in council meetings when someone gets sad about the physical appearance of one of them. There are even more orphaned war memorials; the local historical society keeps asking in the paper if anyone remembers when various monuments were installed and who was involved.

(Also in some states there is just a ridiculous amount of limestone or sandstone; I think it may have been hard for families to justify paying so much more given how incredibly plentiful these softer stones were.)
posted by SMPA at 5:49 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remember reading that up to the industrial revolution, marble and limestone grave markers were super common. The mass burning of coal caused acidification of rain, which dissolves those, and caused the switch to granite.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:20 PM on October 17, 2015

Pre-WWI Era Headstones and Markers

Types and Explanations of Headstones

NPS: Burial Customes and Cemeteries in American History

In New England, at least, they pretty much buried people pratically on top of one another, not worrying about leaving "room" for the casket to have space around it or anything. These were just earthly remains, after all, to our heavenly-minded forebears - and cemetery plots had to be paid for. There's a lot of piling-together.

To help take care of cemetery sites, Google [your state] + "cemetery preservation" or "cemetary conservation"
posted by Miko at 8:53 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

FWIW. and please note that I am unsure how this applies to your case.

I live near a huge cemetery, still in use, with graves dating back over a century. Cemetery maintenance operations regularly require disinterment and reinterment. They move the original grave's headstones and smash them to bits with heavy equipment, something I found to be of concern when I first noted it.

Mefite ColdChef, iirc, set me straight, that it was a normal part of running a cemetery. I think the gist was along the lines of burning a flag that's rpuched the ground: that is, the destruction is intended to prevent the stones being used in a desacralized context, like as your doorstop.

However, this is not a universal practice over time. Couldn't hurt to ask your local cemetery operator, I would think.

Where is ColdChef anyway? Did he split while I was offsite?
posted by mwhybark at 9:20 PM on October 17, 2015

If you do happen to volunteer for a small cemetery, and some slick operator shows up offering to "clean" old gravestones with a rotating electric tool of any sort, kindly run that fellow off with the nearest shovel to hand. Many historic gravestones have been wrecked by these methods, with towns and non-profits paying for the privilege.
posted by Scram at 9:56 PM on October 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just as another data point: what mwhybark says about smashing old/revised headstones is common practice in US national cemeteries, too.

My parents are in Arlington National Cemetery, and their grave is currently under their third headstone: when replaced, both the first and second stones were crushed and destroyed, specifically to prevent the kind of souvenir usage you mention. Even though those first two stones were removed to be replaced by cemetery officials, it is usually considered some combination of macabre/disrespectful of the dead/sacrilegious NOT to crush those old stones, and to risk having them end up as some sort of display or conversation pieces --- or worse yet, as building or paving material. (See also the Nazi use of headstones from Jewish cemeteries for extreme examples of this.)
posted by easily confused at 1:52 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

The old markers are destroyed when moving remains so this doesn't happen.
posted by notsnot at 6:49 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great answers in this thread! A little more information (I'm an undertaker by trade and have a side-business in gravestones)

1. A small gravestone with only a few letters is quite common for someone who was poor or who died an infant. But there are very few "standardized" gravestones, so it could really mean anything or nothing.

2. The pillars are likely marking the boundary of a family section OR marking the row. Look around and see if there are pillars reading A, B, C. Again, it varies wildly from cemetery to cemetery.

3. Caskets were MUCH smaller back then (as were the occupants). Also, check the time between burials. If it's more than 20 years or so, depending on the acidity of the soil, the former occupant and the casket may no longer exist in a recognizable form.

4. While some cemeteries are owned by churches and private organizations, some are run by families (a family cemetery may reach out for several generations on each side), and some are "maintained" by the local municipalities. In a very small town, the local funeral home might be asked to maintain the cemetery for a small tax stipend.

5. Yes! Boy Scouts often clean up cemeteries for civic projects. They cut they grass, weed eat, and clean the grave markers. We used to do it all the time. It helps if there's someone still living who cares about the graves. It's not unusual for a cemetery to be "reclaimed" by the forest surrounding it.

6. So, this is a sticky wicket, as pointed out above. Occasionally, national veterans' cemeteries will replace all of their old headstones with bright shiny new marble ones. Nowadays, they try to bust up all the old headstones, but this wasn't always the case. It's still possible to find old headstones for sale. Also: check with your local funeral home, I have literally dozens of headstones that I'd be happy to give away to someone with a truck and a strong back. The markers are either chipped, or discolored or have been replaced with fancy new markers.
posted by ColdChef at 8:43 AM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Lots of great answers; thanks! I am now much more informed.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 7:22 AM on October 30, 2015

« Older Please help identify this book!   |   Can I eat it? Potato twin edition Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.