Field Guide

What are common sizes and shapes of seventeenth and eighteenth century gravestones?

Size. There is no standard height or width, although there is a solid relationship between the importance of the deceased and the size of the head and foot stones. The above-ground height of the markers tends to vary from graveyard to graveyard, with markers in more prosperous communities somewhat larger in size and more complex in shape. The butt, or unfinished, supporting portion of a gravestone, may reach to a surprising underground depth, sometimes three-fourths the above-ground height. Over the centuries, many an old stone has sunk below its intended ground line, diminishing its original above-ground height (and hiding lines of inscriptions). In other instances, stones have broken off at their ground lines and been reset, again with the loss of above-ground height (and readable lines of inscription). The oldest New England headstones tended to stand about 30 inches high, and the average height increased somewhat during the latter half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Shape. The shape of the stones standing at the head and foot of colonial graves suggests the headboard and footboard of a bed. Their shape also suggests the arches and portals that, through death, the Puritans believed the soul must pass to enter eternity. The headstone’s rounded tympanum is flanked on each side by rounded shoulders, or finials. The inscribed tablet under the tympanum is usually bordered with decorative carving on two, three, and sometimes all four sides. The tympanum and shoulders are nearly always decorated. Footstones are smaller than headstones. Some footstones are cut to match the shape of their headstones, but footstone shapes are usually simple, often just a small slab with rounded corners. (Their ornamental carving is also simple or nonexistent and the inscription is often limited to the initials of the deceased.)

This basic tripartite or three-lobed shape was by far the most popular of those used in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The older the yard, the more this style dominated. By the middle of the eighteenth century, variations on the old shape and many new, innovative shapes began to outnumber the basic, three-lobed gravestone pattern. There were tympanums without the flanking round shoulders; tympanums and shoulders elaborately embellished with bulges and curves and points; and any shape that was a particular carver’s personal, artistic variation on the basic shape. The transition in shape was accompanied by an increase in height. Then came a significant style change, the result of a great neoclassical revival imported from Europe. By 1800, almost every burial ground reflected a move from the Puritan religious spirit to an enthusiasm for classical antiquity. Compared to the squat, thick, three-lobed markers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the more elaborate later-eighteenth-century markers, the gravestones produced in the early nineteenth century are simpler in design, more finished and sleek in appearance, taller and more uniform in shape. Gone are the rounded shoulders and the innovative embellishments. A clean-cut, rounded tympanum now surmounts a simple rectangular tablet. The width of the tablet extends beyond the base of the tympanum on either side, giving the marker the appearance of having squared-off shoulders. (In eastern New England, these neoclassic markers were usually made of slate.)

Today, anyone traveling along a busy throughway and spotting a roadside graveyard can at a glance make surprisingly accurate guesses concerning the age of the stones. And at the same time, the traveler can rather accurately predict the iconography that will be found carved into the stones of each shape––skulls or faces, usually winged, on the round-shouldered stones; urns and/or willows on the stones with square shoulders.

Taken from Early American Gravestones: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection by Jessie Lie Farber, Copyright 2003 American Antiquarian Society