Graves and tombstones have been devices of human culture since time immemorial. The wide variety of objects that primitive peoples used as markers for the burial sites of their kin can scarcely be enumerated.

In fact, one of the primary ways by which we know the world of the past is through their burial rituals and markers such as headstones. Of course, the vast majority of such markers have been erased by time.

Either they were made of wood and other soft materials, or later generations effaced them. However, the Poulnabrone Dolmen in Ireland and other large stone structures meant to serve as primitive headstones have survived.

The Medieval Headstone

The stonemasons of the distant past were severely limited in time, methods and materials. If they lived in a region with soft rock, they made soft headstones that eroded quickly.

As the stone had to be carried into place by the power of man and animal alone, they tended to be smaller and made with local materials. However, some areas contained a happy coincidence of quality rock and quality stonecutters, and their headstones survive to this day.

The famous cemeteries of the Merovingian region of France are excellent examples. Even though the graves and headstones are over a thousand years old, they have survived a rainy and cold climate with remarkable fortitude.

Headstones in Victorian England and Civil War America

Many of our modern attitudes about death stem from the 19th century, and it was then that regular headstones became common.

The battlefield graveyards of the Civil War paved the way with their endless wooden crosses, and soon after the dead of America were memorialized with stone versions of the same thing. Granite became the preferred material during this era.

Maine was particularly well known as a region with plentiful strong rock for making headstones, convenient shipping lanes to transport them, and many skilled masons with the expertise to cut them correctly.

This era also saw many thin, rectangular headstones of regular size, which is a fashion that has fallen out of style.

Headstone Production in the 20th Century

As with most technologies, the 20th century served as a bridge between the fabrication methods of the past and the future.

At the beginning of the century stones were still cut by hand, polished by old techniques that left the stone open to erosion and decay, and severely limited by the stonecutter's ability to move them. They were made by local handymen and not subject to any sort of quality controls whatsoever.

The century saw rapid codification of methods and techniques, focused around the military cemeteries of World War One and Two, and machines began to be widely employed to cut and finish the stone with perfect regularity, even in complex shapes.

The Modern Headstone

Headstones today are often designed by computer and cut entirely by machine-assisted methods.

This gives nearly unlimited versatility in shape, features and materials. Headstones now have previously unheard of properties of weather resistance and other amazing advantages. In all ways modern headstones are superior to the headstones of the past.