by Robyn S. Lacy
The capitalist market of death and burial is nothing new for North Americans. Overpriced caskets, expensive urns, and strangely specific rules in different cemeteries add an increasingly overwhelming price tag for which individuals must deal. The commodification of death as discussed by Jessica Mitford (1963) is a practice old enough in North America to have been the subject of study for decades. While artistry goes into the creation of gravestones and memorials today, much of the lettering and design is sandblasted or cut with other machinery, even though historically the lettering and iconography often were hand-carved by skilled masons. The more lettering the customer wanted – the more lines, script styles – the higher that price tag. However, all these expensive processes omitted many. In this blog post, I discuss the grave markers of impoverished or rural individuals who did what they could to mark the graves of their loved ones, such as reusing plot markers, short inscriptions, small stones, biodegradable markers, or resorting to an unmarked grave.
While many historic burial sites do not have early surviving markers covering their landscape, there are often still traces in the subsurface that we can pick up on through archaeology. Like coffins, often early settlers in North America did not have a gravestone carver or handy mason with them who had the skills, or perhaps the time, to create gravestones for the dead. Even in New England, famous for its grinning skulls on 17th– and 18th-century gravestones, the earliest graves appear unmarked from the surface.
At St. Mary’s City in Maryland, which was founded by the Cecil Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore, Archaeologist Timothy Riordan found evidence of post moulds at the head of many of the grave shafts from the 17th century, indicating that the graves had once been marked with wooden markers. A post-mould (examples of post-moulds can be seen here )is formed when the piece of wood which was below the surface has decomposed and turned back into soil, therefore changing the composition of the soil in which it is placed.
Today, these decomposed posts appear as a more organic section of the sediment layer, in the shape of the post or beam that used to be there. While from the surface today, these graves appeared unmarked, in the 17th century there were crosses, posts, or boards marking the setters’ last resting places.
In many rural sites in Newfoundland and Labrador, deceased are buried in family plots near the home or settlement, or in small community burial grounds established on the wind-swept cliffs near the settlement. Due to the remote nature of these communities, most people did not have access to the gravestone carvers, who were in the city centre of St. John’s, nor did they have the money to import a gravestone from the east coast or the British Isles.
Rather than leave the graves unmarked, European settlers on ‘The Rock,’ as the Island of Newfoundland, placed field stones, pulling rocks from the local landscape to use as grave markers. The stones were either simple grave markers or shaped to resemble traditional carved gravestones with a rounded or flat top, and typically they were uninscribed. Not only a common sight in Newfoundland, field stone grave markers are noted at many burial grounds around the world, typically without inscription or with limited inscriptions.
Take, for example, the site of Bloody Point, New Perlican, NL. This historic burial ground, designated as a municipal heritage site, dates to at least the 18th century, if not earlier, and is populated by primarily field stones. There is one limestone gravestone with iconography and inscription from the 19th century, but it is not in the main area of the burial site. A 2020 report written by Lewis-Simpson et al. detailing a Ground Penetrating Radar survey (GPR) undertaken at the site recorded 19 grave markers and at least two burials below surface.
While the field stones are quite small and uninscribed, their use shows the care and commitment to commemoration that the people of early New Perlican put into their mortuary practices. The selection of the perfect stone, carving of the top of the marker to the perfect shape, and placing it at the head of the grave of a loved one is a ritual act. Even though the family may not have been able to afford or source an elaborate gravestone, there is no less love in the field stones.
Another common grave marker style we see for individuals who could not afford a more elaborate monument is the short, inscribed marker. This was common in larger centres with access to gravestone carvers. These markers may have been originally the marker with initials indicating the plot of the deceased as a placeholder before the traditional headstone was made. Other explanations are that a) they may have been repurposed as the grave marker itself, b) a newly cut gravestone with initials, c) a short inscription or d) an unfinished inscription. An inscription may have been left unfinished because the patron couldn’t afford to pay for the stone they had ordered, but the family decided to use what had been made already. It is rare to see gravestones erected with unfinished inscriptions, but it does happen! One example is the beautiful Manx slate stone at Kirk Malew Church near Castletown on the Isle of Man. The blue streaked stone is roughly hewn to a rectangular shape and simply reads “E C” with a dot between the letters. It was removed from the ground and is leaning on the back of a more recent marker. I cannot help but wonder if this stone was all that a family could afford to mark the grave.
In 2019, I worked at Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario. My job was to clean and repair historic gravestones as a monument conservator. It was my introduction to working directly in contemporary death care, and while I was working at the site, I discovered that several members of my own family were buried there, including my great-great-grandparents. William James and Sarah James (née Hodges) lived in London in the early 1900s. William died of pneumonia on December 25, 1928, and Sarah died only a few days later on December 30, of influenza and pneumonia. My mom believed that there was another outbreak of the Spanish Flu that year in the City of London, and it was likely that their flu could have been due to the outbreak.
We looked up their names in the cemetery records and were able to find out which section of the cemetery they were been buried and located the plots that they owned in the original grave plot maps. This allowed us to proceed find them at the site.
Like so many people with a limited income, in the 1900s my great-great grandparents were able to be buried at a cemetery but did not have money to purchase grave markers, or they had something simple and wooden which has long since rotted away. Below is a photo of my grandfather standing at the site of his grandparents’ graves (my great-great grandparents) taken by my mom in 2019. Today there are no grave markers on their graves, which in family lore is because they couldn’t afford a stone, but their graves could also have been marked with wood crosses which have long since rotted. It was really special to be able to find their burial site and take my grandparents for a visit, and I realize that being able to figure out exactly where they were buried for my family was a privilege not afforded to many living descendants of people buried in unmarked graves. While they did not have etched stone grave markers, they had enough funds to purchase plots at the cemetery and their names were present both in the contemporaneous records and the contemporary digital ones.
It is within our nature to commemorate the dead. Every cultural group around the world has traditions and practices for dying, funerals, commemoration, and honouring our loved ones who have passed on. In settler communities in North America, this typically involved gravestones or other markers with names and dates inscribed on their faces, but even that type of marker was not available to everyone. Illiterate, poor, or remote communities may not have had access to the same technologies, materials, or craftspeople to create complex grave markers or gravestones for their graves, therefore creating their own practices of marking graves by different means. Unmarked graves or plain field stones at the head of the grave shaft, show that while they may not have had access to a fancy marble gravestone, people in these communities and circumstances showed no less love and commitment to commemorating their dead.
Baugher, Sherene, and Veit, Richard F. 2014. The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida: Gainesville, Florida.
Lewis-Simpson, Shannon, Lear, Maria, Onah, Rita, and Elsa Simms. 2020. Interim Report: An Early European Burial Ground at Bloody Point 2, New Perlican. Unpublished report, available on Facebook.
Mitford, Jessica. 1963.The American Way of Death. Crest Books: New York.
Mytum, Harold, and Evans, Richard. 2003. The 18th and 19th Century Graveyard Monuments of Killeevan, Co. Monaghan and Galloon, Co. Fermanagh. Clogher Record, 18(1): 1-31.
Riordan, Timothy. 1997. The 17th-Century Cemetery at St. Mary’s City: Mortuary Practices in the Early Chesapeake. Historical Archaeology 31 (4): 28-40.