More Culture:

November 29, 2017

Why do we mark graves with stone?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

For as long as people have been alive, they've been dying. And by that very nature, it's worth wondering, as we walk past the suburban sea of graves in cemetery yards: How did we get to mark them all with stone? Those cold, dull identifiers that tend to be functional but explain very little about a person. 

Curious as to the answer, we reached out to Lucy Bregman, a professor of religion and dying at Temple University's College of Liberal Arts.

How did we get to mark graves with stone? It strikes as odd that we spend our whole lives trying to dress ourselves up as individuals, only to have these drab grey slabs mark our existence. 

  • The world is full of questions that deserve answers no matter how embarrassed, time-crunched or intimidated we are to ask. With Infrequently Asked Questions, we set out to answer those shared curiosities. Have a question you want answered? Send an email to, and we’ll find an expert who can give you the answer you’re craving.

Individual graves with stones were not normal for ordinary persons until the early modern period. The early New England settlers had graveyards, with motifs such as skulls and the names and dates of the [life and death of the] person buried underneath. Then, in the 19th century, graves became very elaborate, and marks of family status. You can see the evidence of this in "park cemeteries" such as Mt. Laurel. Lots of weeping angels and giant mausoleums. More recently, as those cemeteries became full, and were difficult to keep up, the modern idea of simple, flat stones became the norm; these are far easier to care for. 

But the real question may be: Why have individual graves at all?

The answer: for both Christians and Jews, burial was mandated. At the resurrection, God would raise up all the dead. But for Christians, up through the early modern period, normal people just wanted to be buried near a church. Only very important persons got marked graves, often under the church floors. But once a more individualistic understanding of persons emerged, it was important to mark everyone as a separate, unique person in death as well as in life. And then you have individual graves. 

Even today, burial in a mass grave is an evil fate, most people agree. Jewish practice made it very difficult to remove or disturb a grave. Hence, the overcrowded famous Jewish cemetery in Prague, where the graves are very close together and look like teeth. Christians did move the dead, reluctantly. It was important by the early 19th century for health reasons to have burials outside city limits, or in a green space further from the living. I am sure that today, if someone really wants a large and unique kind of grave, there are places that will permit it. But it will cost a lot.

If gravestones for individual persons were not typical until the modern era, what did people do before? Just bury bodies anywhere? Burn them? Did they mark them at all?

People have generally been very respectful of their own dead, and contemptuous to their dead enemies. But what counts as "respectful" varies. Burial near, around or under a church was the best place for Christians. But I found this picture of an Ossuary Church in Prague that shows what eventually happened there. Or could happen ... Bones could be reused in all sorts of creative ways.

Any sense of why skulls and crossbones got to be the popular earlier marker? It's rather morbid for something that's so ritualistic. 

As for skull and crossbones, I am pretty sure this dates from the late Middle Ages. By the 17th century in New England, this was the standard decor for graves--or at least a skull and a message to the effect of: "As I am now, so will you be." Morbid, or salutary to remind people of the reality of death? That would have been the rationale. But, as for the famous Jolly Roger skull and crossbones used by pirates, I don't know. The TV show "Black Sails" showed pirates flying a black flag as a warning to a ship they were about to capture, to terrify its crew into a quick surrender. In the show, one of the pirates designed the skull and crossbones as an additional threatening touch. 

Maybe this is a silly question, but won't cemeteries eventually run out of space to bury everyone? I wonder that every time I go visit. People die every day and yet many of these cemeteries just keep adapting.

The modern problem of running out of space is different. It is about land, rather than about bodies. Cemeteries take up lots of land, land that was usually set aside when the boundaries of cities were smaller. So a "cemetery belt" in Brooklyn, N.Y. uses up a huge tract of land in what is now the middle of New York City. These cemeteries were designed when people already wanted individual markers and a park-like landscape between the graves. So, finding more land in today's cities and suburbs is a problem. Note: hardly anyone wants to live near a cemetery, so neighbors will object if a new one is planned. Cremation uses much less land, and when people take the ashes home, no land at all. That appears to be the trend of the future. At the same time, rural areas are depopulated, and small, rural cemeteries are overgrown and neglected because there are no more family members to tend graves. So, it's the opposite problem.