Gravestone shapes & styles

Updated April 17, 2017

Gravestones, also known as headstones or tombstones, are traditionally erected in cemeteries to remember the dead. Historically, gravestones were a testament to wealth and status. Those without status had simple wooden-cross grave markers or foot stones that were flat rock without writing, while more wealthy people had tombstones with statues, according to the Association for Gravestone Studies. Gravestones are common for burials today, and there are several types and styles to choose from.

Shapes of Gravestones

There are eight basic shapes for gravestones. They are capped stone, stele, nameplate, coped stone or tablet, wall plaque or plaque, block, sculptured cross, and pedestal with surmount. Capped stone gravestones are usually larger gravestones with decorations on top and engraving. Stele gravestones are basic gravestones, like the ones you see with RIP on Halloween. Nameplates are stones with just the name of the deceased on them.

Coped stones or tablets are longer stones that resemble tombs and lie on top of the ground where the body of the deceased is buried. These often are designed as statues or crosses or even stone slabs with engraving. Plaques are usually embedded in the ground with engraving, while wall plaques usually hang on a wall with engraving. Blocks are made of heavy stone and are very thick to endure severe weather. Blocks usually have the name of the deceased, plus engraving. Sculpted crosses are most commonly seen in Irish graveyards and are statues of Celtic crosses with the deceased's name engraved.

Pedestals with surmount are the most elaborate gravestones and often include statues of the deceased, a block with an etching of the person or a message about the person with engraving.

Gravestone Styles

There are also five popular styles for a headstone: monuments, grass markers, slant markers and bevel markers. Grass markers are completely level with the ground and often made of bronze or granite. Grass markers usually use the plaque shape. Slant markers, also known as wedges or pillow stones, are usually a maximum of 18 inches high and are used to mark the graves of two people. Slant markers usually have a block shape.

Bevel markers are above the ground, are only 8 to 10 inches high and are often used as a foot stone or to mark the foot of a grave. Bevel markers are usually the stele shape. Lastly, monuments are an upright tablet mounted on a granite horizontal base. A monument can be used for more than one grave. Monuments usually incorporate the pedestal shape.

Types of Stone

Several different types of stone are used for gravestones. Granite is igneous rock, which is speckled in appearance and is made primarily of quartz and feldspar. The most commonly used granite colours for gravestones are grey, pink, black, red and mahogany. Granite is very hard to carve by hand and is often used for monuments and tombs.

Limestone is a soft rock made of calcite that is often tan, buff or grey. A lot of old gravestones were made of limestone because it is easy to engrave. Marble was the most common stone used for gravestones in the 19th century, according to the Association for Gravestone Studies. It is similar in texture to limestone but appears white or yellow. Sandstone, a sedimentary rock, is also used for gravestones. These are usually red, brown, grey or blue. Slate, which is a brittle shale, was used in early American graves because it is easy to engrave. It is usually black, grey or blue, and the gravestones are not more than 6 inches tall.

Soapstone is a metamorphic rock that was frequently used in 19th-century cemeteries in the South, according to the Association for Gravestone Studies. These gravestones are usually white, grey, greenish grey or pale green.

Symbolism of Designs

Commonly, a person's name and life dates are put on the gravestone to commemorate the life of the deceased. Some gravestones often have ceramic pictures added to the headstone design. Other gravestones include epitaphs, which can be poems, Bible verses or verses of songs that may sum up a person's life.

The designs and illustrations on gravestones also have significance. Two of the most popular flowers for headstones are lilies and roses, which signify innocence and romance, respectively. Lions and lambs are also common on headstones. They signify purity, while lions depict the power of God. Hands and arms hold much meaning on gravestones. Arms outstretched mean mercy. Clasped hands signify farewell. A hand pointing up symbolises the pathway to heaven, while a hand pointing down symbolises mortality.

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About the Author

Maria Woehr is a journalist with over 10 years of professional writing experience. She started editing in 2006 and has been published in "The Westfield Leader Times," "Insurance & Technology Magazine," "InformationWeek," "Positive Thinking Magazine," "Go Magazine," "The Deal," "The Financial Times" and many other outlets. She is a graduate of Boston University and has a master's degree from Drew University.