Funeral Customs & Traditions: The Surprising History Behind Gravestones


Posted on September 13, 2016 by

"Shhh," I'd whisper to my little brother, index finger pressed tightly to my lips, "Don't make any noise or you'll wake the dead." We'd stare out the window, holding our breath, as our car passed yet another cemetery. Watching in anticipation as the granite gravestones rushed past in a grey blur, we kept a lookout for any sign of movement among the sculptures. 

 Simon Hattinga Verschure |Unsplash|

Photo: Simon Hattinga Verschure |Unsplash

As time passes beliefs and customs, formerly thought to be written in stone, begin to change and fade taking on new meaning and new purpose. The way we care for our loved ones after their death holds significant sociological and anthropological meaning and the history behind it can be surprising. What was an endearing childhood memory of a generation is, in fact, linked to thousands of years of tradition and superstition. This is the history behind gravestones and the origin of modern funeral customs and traditions.

In the stone age, when humans were still nomadic in nature, the dead would be buried and a great stone or boulder rolled atop the grave. These stones were called gravestones and their purpose was to prevent the deceased from rising after death, a fear still prevalent in modern society. These gravestones, and the superstition guiding their use, persisted as tribes began settling down. But as time wore on the boulders and stones were replaced with more sophisticated grave markers called "dolmens." The most distinguished grouping of dolmens dates back over 2,000 BC is known by the moniker "Stonehenge." Located in Wiltshire, England, the purpose of the Stonehenge was realized in early 2008 by a team of archaeologists supported by the National Geographic's Committee for Research & Exploration. A majority of the world's wonders, from the pyramids in Egypt to the 5,000 year old stone age cemetery that is the Stonehenge, are an embodiment of our relationship with death and loss.

Photo: Hith Stonehenge |

Ancient Customs

As the social structure of the human race became more sedentary, burial methods driven by fear and seeped with superstition transformed into a desire to remember and honor the dead. Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian cultures believed the after-world existed within the Earth and so their mummified loved ones were buried within the ground along with their tools of trade and any valuables to aid their passage. It was believed when an ancestor was forgotten, they ceased to exist, and although the after-world of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was believed to be a dark shadowy place, non-existence was considered far worse than death. Tombs and gigantic pyramids were erected in a Pharaoh's name and image, while those of common birth were buried close to the home with graves tended to regularly. Stones were carved into the deceased's likeness would be placed atop a "mastaba," meaning 'bench', to preserve their memory. In ancient Greece, remembrance of the dead was considered akin to civic-duty, each individual responsible for the honor of their ancestors. They too believed the afterlife took place in the Earth and their dead were buried in tombs and graves covered in marble and stone. Although different states observed different burial rites, each considered crucial to their loved one's passage to the after-world, preserving the memory of your ancestor was considered most important. Stone statues were carved in the likeness of the dead and placed above the burial site and in some states, children were named after their grandparents. 

Photo: Samuel Zeller |Unsplash

In ancient China and the dynasties that follow, burial practices dictated that the dead be entombed with their favorite and most valuable possessions for use in the afterlife. The first emperor of China and founder of the Qing dynasty, Qing Shi Huangti, was buried along with over 6,000 terracotta soldiers and 40,000 bronze swords protecting his tomb, said to have 100 rivers of mercury, towers replicating the after-world and palaces containing rare objects from all over the world (Jane Portal and Qingbo Duan, The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army). Those of common birth were buried in burial mounds covered with stone and burial shrines.

Customs of the Dark Ages

With the introduction of Christianity by the Romans, along with Purgatory and Hell, during the dark ages, superstition and religion began to transform burial customs once more. As Europe was subjected to the plight of constant war and plague, funeral and burial customs changed to match. Burial grounds were moved from the home to roadside lots, and although cremation was popular for a time, increased population and decreased lifespans called for a more rushed internment. Instead of pleasantries, funerals in the Dark Ages were solemn and quick events. Scenes of death and despair were everywhere; Gothic skulls, cherubs and skeletons were painted upon churches and carved onto headstones with the purpose of scaring away the living . Those who could not afford a headstone used wooden, iron, or brass crosses to mark their grave and the deceased were buried in a wooden coffin if wealthy enough, or wrapped in a shroud. As the plagues swept through Europe, cemeteries were filled to the brim so that walls had to be built around them to retain the soil. The stench and terrifying images peppered around the churches and cemeteries were effective in keeping the living separate from the dead. Loved ones were photographed after their passing in an effort to memorialize them before burial.

Photo: Tom Skarbek-Wazynski |Unsplash

The Victorian era marked the start of the modern funeral trade, when private cemeteries were erected and carpenters found profit in creating elaborate grave markers, and undertaking the elaborate procession that funerals became, to appease their wealthy patrons. Wooden and iron grave markers became crosses, statues, and elaborate monuments carved in stone. When the study of anatomy became popular in Victorian Europe, unbeknownst to the general public, resurrection men, people hired to disinter graves and steal the bodies for dissection, began raiding graves. As a result, missing bodies gave way to suspicious lore prompting families to hold "wakes" for the dead, where they would stand vigil in the night to look for movement. Bells were placed inside coffins or strung from the coffin to the surface in case of premature burial. Less wealthy individuals would place flowers at a grave or line the perimeter with small stones to mark any disturbances.

Modern Customs

Today, cemeteries are a plethora of combined rituals and practices which stem from thousands of years of beliefs and tradition. Gravestones, once giant boulders rolled a top a grave, are now slabs of granite, marble and stone placed upright at the head of a grave. Mausoleums and vaults originated to combat strides made in science, and statues were meant to impress. Even the type of inscription can be an indicator of the social climate at the time of death.

Modern practices are a combination of our combined history; whether you are cremated or embalmed, buried or entombed, even the type of stone you choose for your headstone and whether you leave flowers at a grave has historical meaning.


Photo: The Edmonds Cemetery |

From the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, the way we care for our dead has been changing. Influenced by our social, political and religious beliefs throughout time, where and how we bury our dead has always been a mirror image of how we view the living.

Today's youths no longer avoid cemeteries as society would have dictated a mere twenty years ago. Instead, they seek them out in hopes of catching a wild Geodude or to hit a Pokestop. The evolution of tradition and custom is not only prevalent in our every day lives, but also after our death.

Modern cemeteries have been thrust into the path of the digital movement, with funeral homes all over the country making the transition online. Who knows what our cemeteries might look like in one hundred years.

Need Help with Funeral Planning?

Gain access to our FREE funeral planning tools such as our Funeral Planning Checklist, My Funeral Wishes, Memorials, and more when you sign up for a FREE Funerals360 account!

Start Planning