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Headstone History

A Fascinating Study of How People Have Used Headstones

The history behind how different cultures memorialized lost lives through headstones is a fascinating study. Early headstone history dates back to antiquity in Roman and Celtic cultures. Roman headstones often told the stories of heroic battles between the departed warrior and “barbarians,” along with their name and title. Pictured headstone history in early Scotland is equally descriptive, often describing the profession of the deceased. For example, We can thank headstones and memorials for providing an alternative look into our collective historyif they were a craftsman, it might have a an emblem or insignia of tools. Celtic headstone history on the other hand, is one of simplicity, and does not tell us much about their early life. On their gravesites, they merely had a cairn, (a pile of rocks) or a monolith, a massive rock. Not much from this tells us about their lives.

When St. Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish, headstone history would change forever. After this significant event, large numbers of headstones were shaped into what is known as Celtic crosses. Although this symbol had its roots in pagan culture, it would come to be completely re-understood and popularized as a headstone thereafter. This is a cross with a circle through the middle. In the same way that Patrick used the leaves of the three leaves of the shamrock to describe the trinity, he may have used the Celtic Sun god to describe one of the attributes of the Christian God, represented by the circle through the cross.

As the West became increasingly Christianized, throughout the Middle Ages, headstone history and the history of the churches became increasingly intertwined. This was primarily because the Church was the center of life for most people. Many generations of families had members who made their livelihood either in the priesthood, or designing the architecture, constructing, and creating the glass work for these churches. Some today have actually been able to use headstone history to find their ancestors a millennium ago. Headstone history might also be a tool with which to trace invasions, say by the Normans or the Vikings, and the participants of epic battles as well.

Especially after the 18th century, as the modern dry Irish humor began to develop, headstone history shows there was no compunction about being morose. Verses or epitaphs such as the following would eventually be on Irish gravestones throughout their headstone history.

Headstones have been a part of our history for nearly as long as man has roamed the Earth“Think of me when you walk by, where you now stand, so once did I,” and “Once I stood where thou dost now, and viewed the dead as thou lost me, Ere long though lie as low as me, and others stand and look at thee.” In many of the early American colonies, an abundance of strong rock such as limestone, marble, and sandstone could be found, thus aiding the study of American headstone history. These rocks often gave the headstones a grayish color. As in Europe, many were buried near a church, for example Kings Chapel in Boston.

By the 1860s, another important development in headstone history had occurred, as igneous rock (rock cooled underground) began to be used. This rock proved to be especially strong and permanent.

In the last century, perhaps as no other time in headstone history, a whole industry has been raised up around headstone sayings. Today these will often be either verses out of the Bible, words of inspiration to those left behind to lead a good life, or words of optimism that the deceased will spend eternity in a better place.

Much can be learned from headstone history. It is truly a history of the attitudes, beliefs, and livelihoods of centuries of people.

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