Rock of Ages – Part 1

Dedicated to Emily, “Gramma Rabbit,” 1905-1975

This piece began as a photo collection [1] of various family gravestones and a few others depicting the different types of stone, presentation styles and usages over the years. My love of art and history, and my youngest son’s fascination with rocks (geology), influenced it into what you now see. Many materials have been used as grave markers, some of the most common and the approximate time-frames they were used are listed here.

Identifying headstone materials can assist a genealogist in better understanding the social status of the decedent and the stability of surviving family members within their community. Sometimes, one’s financial status is also hinted in the stonework. Artistic expression, observed in the carving styles of the stonemasons, also reflected the general scope and religious influences of the community during each time period. But it is not just what is carved into the stone that provides hints to your research answers — the stone itself, how well, or how poorly, it has survived its environment and how it was placed can sometimes reveal more secrets.

When Damage Sets In
When you understand the type of damage that has affected your family gravestones, it may be easier to identify what type of materials the memorials are made from. Over time, some types of stonework deteriorate faster than others. There are three main categories [2] of damage, namely:

  • Environmental: carbon-based deposits from industrial and car emissions, improper cleaning and/or repair methods (power washers, wire brushes, bleach [3], shaving cream [4], chalk [5] or vinegar [6]), and air pollution, acid rain, and wind/ water erosion [7],[8],[9]
  • Natural: aging and weathering stone, settling of stone (tilting and/or sinking [10]), organic growths (Lichen, algae, mosses and fungi) and climbing plants, ivies, vines and trees
  • Human-inflicted:  neglect [11], crime or vandalism [12] and improper use of maintenance equipment (like lawn tractors or weed trimmers).

But there are two other grave concerns to consider as well:

  • Material: sometimes a poor material choice is the only one available; and, more often than not, the only option loved ones can afford
Vandalism in Ontario
Vandalisn in Ontario


An abandoned cemetery, Bolton, ON 1863
An abandoned cemetery, Bolton, ON 1863
  • Location & Placement: North or South? East or West? Upright or flat-facing? Too often the well-intended placement of a marker (lying flat under pooling rains or drifts of snow; or standing upright under a shady tree full of nesting birds located upon a mossy ridge that overlooks the crashing waves of the shoreline [13]) only exposes it to more damage



[1] Many copyright concerns arise when using photographs. If any artistic work is in the photograph, it is copyrighted for fifty (50) years beyond the death of the artist. The photos supplied best illustrate the types of gravestone materials, stone damages and/or the artistic beauty of stonemasonry. Most of the stones in my photo collection are between 68 -160 years old and well outside the fifty-year restriction; or under the twenty-five (25) year restriction imposed by FOIP (Freedom of Information Protection Act).
[2] It is agreed there are three categories of gravestone damage, but the names and sub-lists of these categories differ from reference to reference. I have listed the most frequently found.
[3] Hendrickson, Nancy. “Turning in Their Graves,” Family Tree Magazine (October 2006, Cincinnati, OH: F&W Media Inc.). Caustic materials, like concrete or bleach, do more harm than good to gravestones
[4] Stacy, Allison. “Grave Error,” Family Tree Magazine (June 2006, Cincinnati, OH: F&W Media Inc.)
[5] Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS)
[6] ibid.
[7] McDonald, Andrea. Cemetery Conservation and Tombstone Care.  ProGenealogists [Internet]
[8] Taylor, Maureen A.  Tips for Photographing Gravestones. [Internet] accessed 07DEC2010
[9] King, Greg G. Michigan Historic Cemeteries Preservation Guide. 2004: McNaughton & Gunn Inc, Michigan, 2004 [Internet] http://…/hal_mhc_shpo_Cemetery_Guide_105082_7.pdf
[10] Lynch, Daniel M. “It Took a Village,” Family Tree Magazine (May 2008, Cincinnati, OH: F&W Media Inc.) In two months, using maps, a 1934 Works Progress Administration survey and keen eyes, volunteers discovered nearly 300 markers buried under sod at St. Augustine Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut.

[11] Hendrickson, Nancy. “Turning in Their Graves,” Family Tree Magazine (October 2006, Cincinnati, OH: F&W Media Inc.) Restoration expert Shelley Sass was quoted that cemeteries that look neglected are more prone for vandalism.

to be continued


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.