An Unusual Medium: Gravestones

Photo by  Greg Ortega

Photo by Greg Ortega

At Smoke Creatives, we’re all about storytelling. An Unusual Medium is our series where we take a look at some of the more unconventional storytelling mediums and celebrate them in all their glory. In this post, we take a look at gravestones.

The History

Gravestones had a superstition-fuelled start: it’s believed they were originally large stones, boulders or pieces of wood placed on top of graves to keep the dead from rising. In some places, they were known as wolf stones and used to prevent animals from digging up shallow graves. Slate and sandstone started being used for tombstones from the 1600s and some included inscriptions but it was the 19th century when gravestones were really viewed as a way to memorialize the deceased. They were engraved with more details like date of birth, date of death, and even epitaphs. The Victorian era’s obsession with death led to gravestones becoming even more elaborate, including designs, artwork, and symbols to represent their beliefs, social class, occupation, or other aspects of the life of the deceased.

The Noteworthy

Some gravestones are as memorable as the people buried beneath them. Voice actor Mel Blanc, best known for playing many Looney Tunes characters, rests beneath a stone that reads ‘That’s all folks’ and comedian Spike Milligan gets the last laugh with the epitaph ‘I told you I was ill’. Other headstones hold fascinating tales of the less illustrious departed. The epitaph of William Walker reads ‘The diver who with his own hands saved Winchester Cathedral’, summarising the six years Walker spent under the cathedral shoring up its foundations, working underwater and in the dark for up to six hours each day. Hannah Twynnoy’s epitaph is a poem recounting her unusual death - she was mauled by a tiger in 1703. Twynnoy worked as a barmaid in Wiltshire when a travelling menagerie set up in the pub’s garden. She liked bothering the tiger for fun until one day it managed to escape its cage, making the barmaid Britain’s first recorded victim of a tiger.

The Merry Cemetery in Romania is one of the world’s more interesting graveyards. Located behind a church in a small northern town, the cemetery is filled with elaborate blue crosses, each decorated with a painting and poem on the person and their character. Unlike many gravestones which honour the dead with touching messages or a favourable portrayal, the ones in the Merry Cemetery aren’t afraid to bear a more realistic representation of each individual. For example, the grave of the town drunk depicts him taking a swig from a bottle whilst being dragged by a skeleton. The tradition started in the 1930s and villager Dumitru Pop carries it on today, crafting the beautiful but bluntly truthful grave markers when someone passes away.

Why Smoke Loves Them

Gravestones are an honouring of life and broadcast the stories of those who are no longer with us. Some gravestones might summarise a person’s life, loves, and achievements, others just give a name and some dates or have even worn away to leave nothing but a sign that someone is buried there. Either way, they tend to leave a lot of gaps to fill in and the gravestones of strangers can often spark a passing visitor’s imagination. But the stories gravestones tell have always been concluded and many leave final instructions: rest in peace.