Austen Authors August 21, 2017: Gravestones in the Regency Era

This past week, I hosted my sister for a few days, and a friend for a few days after that. While I was having sister-time, I drove us out to Sharon, Pennsylvania to a cemetery. We were looking for the graves of our maternal great-grandparents, who had been Italian immigrants in the early 1900’s. After walking half the cemetery, we found them! <3

Being a writer of Regency-era fiction, I began to wonder, after this, about the burial practices of that era, specifically headstones. This post is the result of my quest for that information. 🙂

It turns out, there is a plethora of information out there about burials! The most pertinent to my search for my great-grandparents is that the wealthy were interred in family tombs, and everyone else in the ground. The middle class could afford coffins, but the poorest people were buried in common graves. Obviously, in a tomb there is room … walls or what have you … with space for the names and/or dates of the people interred within. If you did not even have a coffin and were buried in a common grave, that was not possible.

My great-grandparents have a flat headstone, which lies flush with the ground. It appears that no one has maintained it, so we are going back one day to clean it up and put flowers (plastic, as that seems to be what everyone else in the cemetery has done) around it. According to the Regency Redingote blog, it was uncommon for anyone to have a grave marker, except the most important of people, until the mid-1700’s. The blog says that it wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that it became standard practice to put a marker of some sort for everyone buried in the cemetery. Before this, one was simply covered with dirt and a ridge created around the grave—of dirt—to mark it. No wonder it’s so hard to find one’s ancestors past a certain point in time! There are spots in the cemetery I visited with my sister that have the look of a grave, but without a stone, or with one that is barely readable.

 Further research, on a Rootsweb site about gravestones, tells me that fieldstones were the earliest markers. Sandstone seems to have replaced them, followed by marble from the early 1800’s. Iron became popular in the Victorian era.

Both Wikipedia and the Ancestry site noted that in the 1700’s there would have been a footstone for each grave, as well, but that those have been removed by most cemeteries to make grass mowing easier. As someone who has spent hours and days searching cemeteries, I must confess that I wish they still existed. I apologize to folks all the time for walking on them, because I can’t always tell in which direction they are lying.

One of the neat things about headstones that began before the Regency period was carvings. On one side of my paternal grandparents’ headstone is a carving of a guy on a riverbank with a fishing pole. Grandpa loved to fish. 🙂 On another relative’s stone is an etching of their farm, complete with a truck and, I think, a tractor. It’s beautifully done.

I have also seen, in almost every cemetery I have been in, images of the deceased on some stones; generally tintypes or black and white photos in plastic or some sort of hard, clear substance. I think those are neat, too, but obviously, that did not happen in the Regency. However, a gentleman or lady of the Regency might have their profile carved into their stone. Alternately, they may have a religious symbol of some kind put on it.

Really, I think that headstones have not changed that much in the last 200 or so years, except maybe in the quality. It is clear that, with modern technology, tombstone masons are able to use harder stone, not to mention other hard materials, and to inscribe and decorate headstones in ways our Regency counterparts could only dream of. As a hobby genealogist, I admit I appreciate those stones, which always make a grave search much easier. I wonder what Darcy and Lizzy would have put on theirs? Any ideas?


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