The tradition of marked burial sites has a history that predates cities, agriculture, and the invention of the written language. The burial tradition as we know it began far in prehistory with the Neanderthals. They buried the dead and covered those bodies with large stones to keep predators from the graves. While scientists cannot pinpoint when the first headstone was created, installed, and erected—in 2013, they did report the first evidence of floral tributes on a grave. Along with flowers, they found mint and other plants used to mark a grave site more than 14,000 years ago at a pre-historic burial site in Israel.
Within the ancient world, stele, also spelled stela or plural stelae—were standing stone slabs used to mark graves, commemorations, dedications, or demarcations. The origin of the stela and when it became widely used in different countries and cultures remains unknown. A stela or stone slab, either decorated or undecorated, was most commonly used as a headstone in the East and Grecian lands as early as the Mycenae and Geometric periods.
The stele is one of the oldest and possibly first forms of funerary art. Stele came in many different stones and materials, such as bronze. In ancient Rome, they often told epic stories of the battles or deeds the deceased accomplished. Dolmens, or chamber tombs, were also used as a megalithic monuments to the departed in different areas of the world.
Unlike a stele, the dolmen was not a single stone, bronze, or wood slab but an entire burial chamber built into the earth using massive rocks to form the room. The largest concentration of dolmens discovered worldwide is found on the Korean Peninsula, with an estimated 35,000 dolmens. Korea alone accounts for nearly 40% of the world's total.
Cemeteries as we know them today were very rare at this point in history. Most families would create a communal burial place near their homes and bury their loved ones there.
The oldest known cemetery discovered so far existed in Kerameikos, Athens, Greece, estimated to be dated back to 3,000 BCE. There, cemeteries marked the wealthy with stele of limestone or marble. Many of the carved steles that remain today also depicted grave scenes of wreaths resting at the base of the stele, which was likely another popular way to adorn the graves of Greek loved ones.
The First Cemeteries
Between wars, disease, and famine, medieval people became very familiar with death. Death became something that wasn't as feared as it tends to be today. While today's average life expectancy can be 70 plus, in the middle ages, the average life span was roughly 30 years, even shorter in many places than it was in prehistory. With such a short life span, many people turned to religion for comfort and guidance during this era. The relationship between church, life, and death became common and widespread.
Christianity and other religious beliefs heavily influenced funeral and burial rites, making it commonplace for most who passed to be buried in the yard of a Church.
Cemeteries were not separate from the church at the time and were meant to be the gathering spot for the whole family and the community to grieve and remember. However, grave markers or tombs were an expense most people could not afford. Those who could afford headstones or tombs were often the nobility or royalty. Simple, slender headstones would stand as a sign of a person's wealth or importance. Carved from sandstone or slate, unique inscriptions began appearing on these grave markers at this time in history.
During the 18th century, some graves were marked with a headstone and a small footstone to mark where the grave ended. These footstones were usually created to match the same headstone material and occasionally turned into complete curb sets to keep the entire perimeter of a grave. As footstones were much smaller, there would be little decoration added to them. Sometimes the deceased's initials, the year of death, or a plot reference number would be all that was carved into them.
Inscriptions and Victorian-Era Art
During the 19th century, gravestones became more commonplace for all members of society. As they became more widespread, inscriptions became more detailed, and decorative or meaningful motifs appeared. Headstones include more than a name and date, such as a few words about the deceased by loved ones or friends.
In the Victorian era, headstones became much more elaborate. More personalized epitaphs, often religious, were carved into indulgent, intricate grave markers. Some were nearly full-sized statues or depicted praying angels, clasped hands, and giant crosses. Others resembled ancient Greek and Roman architecture, and some created headstones in a life-like and life-sized replica of their departed loved one.
Materials at the time ranged from wood, limestone, iron, fieldstone, slate, bronze, sandstone, marble, and granite. Influential Victorian-era families often created headstones from marble or bronze due to their breathtaking beauty. Unfortunately, marble's softness did not withstand the test of time, and different grades of granite became the more popular choice.
Memorial headstones of the current day now offer a tremendous range of exceptionally long-lasting materials to choose from—but many still prefer the traditional granite, bronze, or a mix of the two. Headstones can now be carved and shaped into countless beautiful memorials thanks to cutting-edge technology, new handcrafting methods, and improved tools.
Legacy Headstones is humbled and proud to hold to a long, historical line of custom engraved headstone creations, starting in the early 1900s. For more than a century, our American-born, family-owned business has been honored to create beautiful and touching memorials for loved ones that last the test of time.