A Brief History of the Tombstone and Other Burial Practices
Updated: Jan 19
Funerals and burials are a very important part of British life and an intrinsic part of our society. As the centuries have passed by, we now thankfully live longer, healthier and fuller lives than our previous ancestors did. However, one thing does remain and that is that the loss of a loved one is heartbreaking. How we mourn and grieve in the immediate aftermath of death remains a central part of how we move on with our lives, from one generation to the next.
We’ve come a long way in the UK in terms of funeral traditions. From the pre-Christian Celts who believed in reincarnation filling their graves with items required for the next life to our modern-day more science-based knowledge of the process of death. However, various customs and traditions have continued through the ages. In this blog, we explore some of the key aspects of UK funerals, where they come from and how they’ve changed over time.
Funeral Rites are as old as the human race. All cultures in some form abide by the proper care of the dead. Every human culture ever studied has three common threads for death and the disposition of their deceased:
● Some type of ceremony, funeral rite, or ritual
● A sacred place for the deceased
● Memorials for the deceased
In the UK it is a tradition for families to announce death to the community by way of a death notice usually published in the local news publication, and include details of the funeral.
Coming from the Latin word obit which translates to “death”, published death announcements have origins as early as the 16th century in America. But it would be 300 years prior to the British made longer obituaries standard. There was a time in the early 1800s when it was highly popular to write in poetic verse. They were often reserved for people of social prominence, such as soldiers or public servants. Moreover, the 20th century saw the rise of the “common man” obituary when the deaths and funeral details of everyone in the community would be frequently published, giving them equal status - in death at least - as members of the local aristocracy.
In modern society, we now often see social media networks such as Facebook providing the option for a named individual to control of your profile after passing away, turning it into a public memorial page to list funeral details and accept messages from well-wishers.
The tombstone appears as a large stone with someone’s name and their birth date and death date on it that is put over the location where they are laid to rest.
Origin and usage
The word tombstone is a mixture of the word ‘tomb’, from the Greek word ‘tymbos’ translating as ‘burial mound’, and ‘stone’, from the Greek word ‘stia’ meaning ‘pebble’. The use of the word tombstone was first used in English around 1560, when it was used to describe the lid of a stone coffin. Its meaning as a grave marker is from 1711.
The earliest gravestones, like the dolmen, appeared as graves built from stone or stones intended to cover entire graves. These coverings were created as markers for a gravestone as well as to keep the grave's occupants safe in the ground. Over some time, though, the words gravestone and headstone became interchangeable. Today, it’s not common practice to cover whole graves with traditional stone, but the gravestones we use do come in an interesting variety of styles.
Today, gravestones serve as memorial markers for our beloved deceased; as status symbols for those wealthy enough to afford very large or decorative ones; and as ritual symbols in a range of religions. From primitive markers and slabs to cover graves to more decorative styles of art, the humble gravestone has come a very long way over the centuries.
Gravestones as symbols of burial are a UK tradition that goes right back to circa 2,000 BC in the UK, with Stonehenge being one of the most renowned ancient gravesites in the world. Through the plague decades, burials were moved to designate sites outside towns, with the poor using wooden crosses instead of stone. But then again, the tradition of carved headstones dates back to Victorian times.
In many Christian cemeteries, most traditional graves will be found facing west to east (head to feet). This is an old custom which originates all the way back to the sun worshippers of Pagan times, moreover, early Christians also adopted it because they believed this allowed the dead to be facing Christ on the day of Resurrection. In ancient Celtic times, the burning of loved ones was more common.
William Kent Memorials - we can provide you with quality headstones for graves as well as headstone inscriptions
If you require memorial stones and tombstones in Boston, Lincolnshire for your dearly departed, William Kent Memorials Ltd have all of the stonemasonry experience you require. We’re a family-run and totally independent stonemasons with over 200 years worth of experience. Established in 1810, we’ve been helping families find gravestones and tombstones for their loved ones for centuries. To find out more, please get in touch.