Gravestones or headstones are used as ‘memento mori’, memorials of death. Throughout history and across cultures, there are many symbols that represent death, some of them used universally.
Up until the early 1800s, Britain’s graveyards were crude charnel-houses with grim, brutal carvings markers. From the 1830s onwards, things began to change, inspired by the success of the great Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. They used celebrity to start a ball rolling and attract customers to their out-of-town graveyard. The strategy worked and it became the place for the glitterati to be buried. Now it’s a Who’s Who of the great minds, artists and politicians of the last two centuries with residents like composers Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, performers Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas. Foreigners flock too – American writer Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and rock star Jim Morrison.
So inspired, new more elegant and less morbid style of statuary for the dead evolved, borrowing from Classical Greek and Roman imagery, and a rich visual language emerged. Often, the tools and symbols of the dead person’s profession were shown on their memorial stone.