Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tombstone Tuesday - Dating Tombstones

Let’s Review the Basics
Sandstone Grave Marker
 When walking the cemetery finding Mr. Ancestor, an unmarked grave in the cemetery plot can still lead to hints. For one, don’t forget to note the material of the tombstone, especially of unmarked grave.  This detailed information can be helpful when trying to distinguish generations in families that reuse names.  Such was the case with the five sons of Oney Martin and Alford Martin.  The eldest son was Alford, as were two grandsons and one great-grandson.  None had readable dates on their tombstones. 

I have also used this method to determine when the marker was placed on the grave.  This may provide hints to erroneous dates, especially, when a marker is placed years after the ancestor’s demise. When the material of the tombstone does not match the death date of the deceased, it is important to take note.

Headstone, Tombstone, or Grave Marker?
“The terms headstone, tombstone, grave marker and gravestone are used synonymously. But it wasn’t always that way. At one time, tombstones and gravestones were actually different things. The terms tombstone and headstone were originally used to describe the stone lid of a coffin, while a ‘gravestone’ was the marker that was placed on top of the gravesite.”[1]

Matching Dates/Eras with Tombstone Materials
The following information has been reprinted for genealogists periodically. I most recently saw it in an archived copy of the Harper County Connections (Kansas) genealogy periodical.[2]

Sandstone or brownstone (a type of sandstone) was often used in Colonial America.  Brownstone deteriorated quickly.
Slate material or fieldstone.  Pioneers used wood slates, but few exist due to natural decomposition.
Limestone and marble (a re-crystallized form of limestone, but quite expensive) dissolve slowly due to the mild acid of rainwater.  These flat topped hard marble inscriptions become less readable over time. Although 1830-1849 is the most common period marble and limestone tombstones may be seen, this date may be extended from 1780-1930.
rounded or pointed soft marble with cursive inscriptions. 
1850s -present
Masonic four sided-stones
pylons, columns and exotic style monuments
sand-cast zinc monuments or “white bronze” was marketed as a more durable and less expensive material than marble.
granite most common

Can’t Make Out the Date?
Try using a 75 watt black light bulb (in any lamp) and cast the light directly on the written message.

Accurate, Accessible Answers

[1] Headstones and Memorials, A Short History of the Granite Headstone. http://www.headstonesandmemorials.com/History_of_the_Headstone_Granite_Headstone_History.php;  Online access 22 Jun 2010
[2] Harper County Connections, “Bits N’ Pieces” (original source note “from the Michigan USGenWeb page).

1 comment:

  1. Great info! I did not know the different definitions regarding headstones, etc. and this is the first time I've heard of using a black light bulb. Thanks for adding another tool to my toolbox!