Anatomy of a Gravestone

 Monument eras can generally be identified by the material used, in addition to styles and decoration. Following are the most commonly used materials and their (approximate) periods, in the US:
1600-1650: Natural fieldstones or wooden markers, sometimes crudely lettered with minimal information; perhaps a name and date, perhaps just the date, sometimes with initials/date – often not marked at all. In the case of the Forefathers Burial Grounds in Chelmsford, MA (as is likely at many other places), most of the original pre-1655 grave stones ended up later serving as part of the surrounding boundary wall for the cemetery.
1650-1900: Slate, Sandstone. Sandstone is very soft, and subject to much erosion. Slate is very hard, and many fine and perfectly legible stones still survive today., primarily in New England due to the Boston area providing a wealth of hard, beautiful slate.

Early slate monument, 1775, MA -Taphophile
1750-1930: Marble , Granite, Schist (a type of shale), rarely, soapstone.
Granite monument, 1871, MA; Taphophile
1860-1930: Zinc; greyish metal with blue undertone; can age a bit like copper; verdigris with white.

 The following is a wonderful article from the Reed Digital Collections; author Laura Liebman:

Stone Shape
The shape of the stone can provide us with information about the ethnicity, religious denomination, and social status of the deceased. In early New England, three basic stone shapes were commonly used: vertical, horizontal, and obilesques. Each of these stone shapes has specific associations. During the late nineteenth-century, gravestones became more individualistic, and in some *garden cemeteries the gravestones were quite unique.

wunzie flat


Vertical stone with a curved top are associated with a curved doorway into the world to come. The side pillars (“borders”) were seen as analogous to the pillars in the third temple that harkened of the messianic era.

Typically used by: this is the most common shape used in colonial New England. In colonial Jewish cemeteries, they are associated with Ashkenazi Jews. In cemeteries that have a larger than usual proportion of horizontal stones, children are often given a disproportionate number of vertical stones.


Horizontal “ledger” stones mark individual as well as family tombs: beginning in the early 1700s, Protestants sometimes built underground tombs consisting of a brick burial room covered with earth and grass. Thus, the above-ground box structures covered by ledger stones mark the site of the tomb, rather than being the tomb itself (Wells & Wells 20).
Typically used by: Protestant ministers and their families, Sephardic Jews, adults, wealthy members of society who can afford more expensive stones. In Protestant cemeteries, it is not uncommon for this style of stone to mark the tomb of more than one individual.


Obilesques became popular in the nineteenth century and are associated with the Egyptian revival movement.
Typically used by: I know of no particular religious groups or ethnic groups that favor this style of stone. They are more common, however, among the upper classes. Presumably this is due to the cost of the monument.

During the later part of the nineteenth century, cemeteries were constructed as garden-like parks. Lavish amounts of money were spent creating individualistic monuments.
Typically used by:
Although fanciful monuments were easier for the upper-classes to afford, in cemeteries such as Lowell, there are elaborate monuments commemorating “the laboring classes” as well.

Elements of the Inscription
There are seven basic elements found on gravestone inscriptions: (1) Header, (2) Epithet [terms of praise or identifying labels], (3) Name, (4) Formulas of Death, (5) Date, (6) Eulogies [usually hopes for the person in the afterlife], and (7) Age. These elements do not appear on every stone, nor do they always appear in the same order. For example, children’s gravestones often have shorter inscriptions. If you are creating a seriation study, it is useful to identify which element of the inscription you want to track. For example, studies of colonial Protestant stones suggest that the header is the most important locale for understanding theological changes over time.

Examples of each category (not exhaustive):

1. Header Here lies; Here lies the body; In the memory of; Sacred ; The remains of..; etc.
2. Epithet(s) Honored; Minister; Merchant; Esteemed; Esq[uire]; Daughter of..; Ornament; Faithful Relic of; Mason; etc.
3. Name Mr. Thomas Mayhew; Moses Lopez
4. Formula of Death Who departed from this life; Who fell victim to..; who died
5. Date May 23, 1786; 3 Nissan 5568; ye 2nd of June
6. Eulogies A Biblical verse; May his soul enjoy the glory; In God we trust
7. Age Age 3 months and 2 days; Aetatis 62

Identifying Key Symbols 
The images that appear on gravestone usually have stock associations. The most commonly used gravestone symbols appear on the lunette. These are the death’s head, the cherub, and the willow & urn. Scholars have argued persuasively that the shift from the Calvinist “death’s head,” to the Arminian Cherub, to the Unitarian “Urn and Willow” reflect when and how individual communities made the transformation from Calvinism to more liberal forms of Christianity. The change in symbols on the lunette is often reflected in a change in the inscription’s header from (1) “Here lies” to (2) “Here lies [buried] the body [corruptible, what was mortal] of” to (3) “in memory of.”

death's Head
willow & urn
Death’s Head
Willow & Urn

The symbols used on the finials and borders are more diverse. Because images on gravestones are often stylized rather than realistically depicted, it is important to familiarize yourself with how objects are typically represented. Click here to see a gravestone glossary for Protestant cemeteries in New England.

*Garden cemeteries: Park-like cemeteries; the first in the US was Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Top Photo, (elements of a monument) – Taphophile
Eras & Materials text: Taphophile
All photos and text from Stone Shape, Examples, Elements & Identifying: Reed Digital Collections, Laura Liebman



Lowell Cemetery

Lowell, Middlesex County, MA
 This cemetery, now privately maintained and still current, was founded in 1841 overlooking the Concord River. Apparently inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, it is the second oldest ‘garden’ cemetery in the country – Mount Auburn was the first. There are some very unique gravestones here, as well as some personages of note, and it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998. Now 85 acres in total, with a working, 1885 granite chapel and some rather impressive gates, it has retained the original charm the architect and planners intended; a place that was once heavily frequented as the beautiful, tree’d park it was intended to be.
The J.C. Ayer Lion

“The order for the work was placed in 1888 with Mr. Joy, whose popularity abroad as a sculptor is attested by the fact that among the orders given him were the John Bright and Gladstone monuments. This statue is eight feet high and rests on a base 7×13 feet. The weight is not far from twenty five tons.”

On to the unusual:

 The Willoughby sofa
The Ebert’s favorite chair
..a good chair always requires a good book:

..and another!

Cruel fate…
..and the empty child’s bed.

But there are those that will watch over them…

..and protect them.

A man and a woman wait at the Parker tomb, he contemplates a sarcophagus, she, a caduceus.

A 32nd degree Master Mason proclaims his rank.


Amasa Pratt, in perpetual care.

A final hidden gem; now and then the public can be guided down in to see the former crypts area, now unused. Look what is stored there!

-all photos property of Dick Howe Jr.

Forefathers Burial Ground

Chelmsford, Middlesex County, MA.

Forefathers Burial Ground is one of the oldest cemeteries in the Merrimack Valley, dating from 1655. The oldest extant stone dates from 1690, and commemorates Grace Livermoar, Chelmsford’s first midwife, born in Dedham, Essex, England in 1616. Captain Joseph Warren, who roused the Chelmsford Minute Men for the march to Lexington and Concord, is here, as is Joseph Spaulding, who fired the first shot in the battle of Bunker Hill against the British in 1775.

The condition of many of the slate stones are excellent; some of them are as crisp and clear as if they were cut just months ago, rather than centuries. As expected in pre-1800 New England, there are numerous examples of the winged skull motifs, many with hourglasses and/or crossed bones, indicating the fleeting nature of life and mortality, and serving as a reminder to the living.

 A magnificent, heavily 3D example of the the skull and bones style, below, for Oliver Fletcher, Esq. The stylized pine cones represent either immortality, regeneration or fertility, or perhaps all three. The stylized urns with eternal flames represent everlasting life, and Memento Mori – ‘Remember Death’ – adorn many stones of this time period.

 Madame Sarah Bridge, who died at age 64 in 1776, the amiable consort of the Reverend Ebenezer Bridge, whose much larger stone stands to her right:

Ebenezer’s portrait is unusually large, surrounded by four funerary urns. He is dressed in a Puritan fashion, wig and all, with the interesting detail of his cloak partially turned aside. He must have been held in high regard by the parish he ministered to for 52 years, to warrant such a large slate.
Inscription: “BY the church of Christ in Chelmsford, in testimony of their esteem and veneration, this sepulcrial stone was erected to stand as a sacred memorial of their late worthy pastor, the Rev. Ebenezer Bridge, who, after having officiated among them in the service of the sanctuary for more than a year above half a century, the strength of nature being exhausted, sunk under the burden of age, and joined the congregation of the dead, Oct. 1, 1792, AE 78.”

 Another lovely slate stone, carved florals up both sides, stylized wings flanking a face; generally thought to indicate release of the soul.
“Here lies the Body of Capt Daniel Proctor who departed this Life Jan 28th 1775 Aged 69 years 1 month and 17 days.
Behold and see as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now, so you must be,
Prepare for death & follow me.”

 “Here lies the body of Deacon Samuel Foster Aged 83 years Died July the 10 1702”
..and the Deacons wife:

“Here Lyes the Body of Esther Foster Wife To Samuel Foster Aged 70 Years Died April 16 1702”
The good Deacon, born in England in 1619, followed his wife to the grave almost exactly three months after her passing, and they remain side by side to this day.

..and then there are the children; there are always so many children in these old burial grounds. One epitaph read:

“Here lies the Body

of Mrs: Betty Blood
late wife of Mr: Ephraim
Blood who depart
ed this Life Decr:
28:th 1771 Aged 58
years 7 months
& 12 days
She was the mother of 7 Children
which all ly at her feet.”
Mrs. Blood spent 5 years & 3 months of her life pregnant; only to bury each and every one of her children.
The rusted gate to a family plot, probably from the mid/latter 1800’s. Birds in flight, a weeping willow, and two lambs resting in flowers.

^photo credit: K. Perry