Gravestones in the Regency Era

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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13 Responses to Gravestones in the Regency Era

  1. Zoe, I enjoyed your blog on the topic. I meant to comment first time around. I don’t have any photos of my family’s gravestones, but I have a photo from St. Nicholas Church in Chawton of the headstones for Jane’s mother and sister. They are well preserved! Couldn’t figure out how to include it here.

  2. My first job was cutting lawn at our church cemetery and my father dug the graves. I spent far too many summer days of my youth there. It’s not as old as some, but you can still see some history there: a few families who were all eliminated within days of each other in the early 1900s and several veterans of various wars. The stones are generally not fancy, but there are quite a few large family stones that anchor a few generations. The newer ones, I believe, are much more personal with pictures, quotes, or specific engravings that mean something to the deceased or family. I could see there being a small family cemetery on the grounds of Pemberly somewhere within walking distance of the main house. Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth’s stones would probably be different, depending on which one passed first, don’t you think?

    • I think you’re probably right, unless they worked together to design one before either died.

      Doesn’t the history just fascinate you? It does me! I feel sad for the babies that died (there were at least two in my family that I know of) and proud of the veterans. My great aunt is buried up the road from here. She was 23 when she died in the early 1900’s (I suspect in childbirth but don’t know for certain) and her husband died in like 1973 or something. He never remarried. That makes me kind of sad, but I also imagine what kind of love that must have been for him to never look at another the same way.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 😀

  3. I didn’t know about the iron headstone fad. That must give cemeteries and genealogists fits. I mean, iron rusts. They won’t last, and they’ll be messy. I was reading the other day about funeral practices. I’ve read several interesting details to work into stories. One, as I think we all know, women didn’t generally go to funerals. They could, though, some of the blogs say. It was unseemly to cry in public, and women were considered too weak not to cry. I’ve also read that all the clocks in the house were stopped at the time of death, and left on that time, although I couldn’t get clear information on how long. A week? Three months? I can’t imagine too long. Mirrors were covered, and black wreaths made to hang on the front door. That all sounds interesting to me. Of course, it’s the internet, so you can never be totally sure what you’re reading is true.

    • Too true about the internet! I was happy to find the ancestry dot com headstone page, because I knew it would be legitimate information! I found a ton of stuff about burial practices, very easily, though the headstones had to be researched a bit deeper. It’s all very interesting to me, both as a history buff and as someone who wants to know how peoples’ day-to-day lives were back then. 🙂

  4. Perhaps morbidly, I truly love to see graveyard statuary, the expressions of honor, memory and grief. I really enjoy reading gravestones wondering about their lives, thinking of the history they saw, how long or short their lives were. I don’t make special trips for this, it’s just when looking for a family member of my own.

    I don’t have a suggestion for what might be on Elizabeth and Darcy’s stones. When I think of that, it feels very uncomfortable. I have read, but don’t enjoy seeing the scenes of these situations in JAFF. So heartbreaking, thinking of one of them soldiering on alone. We all face that many times in our lives, but those characters are so real to us. There’s angst, and then there’s pain.

    • I don’t think it’s morbid at all to love seeing graveyard statuary. I am one who loves to learn the stories of people, and why they chose what they did for their grave sites. My mom called that “being nibby” and I proudly own to it. 😉

      I have to laugh at myself and my question, because I can’t take them dying, either. I won’t read book 3 of one of my favorite variation series when it comes out, because I already know Darcy will fake his death and I can’t go there. You’re not alone feeling that way, not at all! 🙂

  5. My great-uncle has his photo on his stone. I always marveled that it is still so clear after all these years. His stone is near a lane in the cemetery that is tree lined so it is shaded from the east and the stone itself shades it from the harsh west. I have often wondered what they did to preserve it in such a way that it is still beautiful today. Interesting post… I hope you enjoyed your visit from family and friends.

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