The Anatomy of Tombstones

Tombstones are the key feature of any cemetery. While many cemeteries may also have monuments, Mausoleums and Columbariums, the most common feature is rows of headstones.

Originally, a tombstone was the stone placed on top of a stone coffin. A gravestone was a stone slab covering a grave. Headstones were generally markers denoting a grave. Today, all of these terms indicate a marker placed at the head of a grave.

The primary inscription on headstones is the person's name birth date and the death date. Other elements might include artwork, which might be symbolic, or text containing a quotation or other epitaph. Often, these inscriptions are religious in nature, and families seek comfort in Inspirational Bible Passages.

Due to their expense, some stones have the names and details of more than one person, usually members of the same family. The cost of such items means that gravestones often are a reflection or indication of a person's wealth and status.

Headstones are commonly made of common field stones, slate, limestone, slate, granite, marble, bronze and sandstone. Wood is used, but is unlikely to last more than 100 years. The softer the material, the easier it is to carve, however, they tend to decay more quickly than materials such as marble or granite.

In Colorado, all of these materials are used, though slate is not very common. If you want to see some samples of these materials, visit Tombstone Materials.

In most U.S. cemeteries, the graves are laid with the headstones facing east, in accordance with Judeo-Christian tradition. This is often true in Colorado, though, cemetery sites were often chosen because the land was hilly or otherwise difficult to farm.

A headstone's material can help to pinpoint the date of the stone or cemetery if the dates are missing or have become unreadable over time.

Most graves simply have a headstone. Some are also marked with a footstone, a small stone, sometimes with the initials of the deceased inscribed on it.

Headstones can be placed directly in the ground. In some areas, these stones are called "tablet" stones.

Headstones can also be set on top of or into a base.

Grave sites can be marked with many types of monuments. Flat markers are common, especially in more contemporary cemeteries, as these are easier to maintain with modern landscaping techniques.

Samples of the types of basic markers are below:

Tombstone TypesExample
Standard Tablet Stone

The most basic of headstone types, a tablet stone is a rectangular stone. It can be set directly in the ground, into a base, or on a base.

Standard Tablet stone in base

Domed Tablet Stone

A variation on the basic tablet stone, these stones have a rounded top, instead of a squared top.

Domed Tablet

Shouldered Tablet Stone

A shouldered tablet stone has a more "angled" top.

Shouldered Tablet

Gothic Tablet Stone

There are many different tombstones in this category, which covers the most ornamented of tablet stone tops.

Gothic Tablet Stone

Standard Obelisk

For centuries, graves have been marked with obelisks. These are narrow, four-sided, column-like monuments, and originated in Egypt. A revival of Egyptian art, led to these forms being found in the U.S. with increasing frequency. The standard obelisks are tapered, and come to a point at the top.

Standard Obelisk

Vaulted Obelisk

A variation of the standard obelisk, vaulted obelisks are four-sided, but, aren't tapered, instead ending in an arch-like point.

Vaulted Obelisk

Other Marker Types
Flat Marker

Just as it sounds, these are markers flush to the ground, and are most commonly granite or metal plaques.

Flat marker

Ledger Stone

A ledger stone is a flat, low to ground marker that usually covers the entire grave. This is a special ledger stone made to look like a postcard.

Canterbury Postcard Marker

Tree Trunk

There are many samples of elaborately carved trees used as markers. Often, but not always, these indicate that the deceased was a Woodman of the World. It can also indicate premature death, a life cut short.

tree trunk

Find out about other Cemetery Monuments

Learn about Cemetery Symbols

Explore Unusual Tombstones and Monuments

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