Gravestone History & Symbolism

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The practice of marking graves has been around for thousands of years, with stones and boulders being placed on graves to protect the remains of the deceased from wild animals and also, as the superstitious believed, to prevent the dead from rising.

Graves were normally situated around the family home but eventually the idea of a cemetery evolved with the Church recognising burial as a valuable source of income. By the 19th century, due to the increase in the population and the first cholera epidemic, public health issues were brought to the forefront and overcrowded churchyards became a menace. Overcrowding was such that in some cases corpses were buried only two feet below the surface. Cemetery building increased but these were privately owned and financed by shareholders and there was increased public dissatisfaction. A second cholera epidemic in the late 1840's forced the government to act and in the 1850's a series of burial acts were passed which eventually established a system of public cemeteries.

Along with the development of the public cemetery, the Victorian era saw the birth of elaborate memorials and gravestones carved with symbolic images, some of a religious nature and some personal to the deceased. The images were easily understood in an age when literacy was limited. To the family historian, the inscription and symbolism contained on the gravestone is invaluable to their research, building up a more detailed picture of their ancestor, as well as an expression of love and remembrance.

The craftsmanship and attention to detail of the stonemason is impressive and inspired MGCTP team member, Spatts, to collect a series of photographic examples of these symbolic images which we have interpreted in this gallery.