Gravestone Inscriptions

Tracing back and learning about your family’s history is a worthwhile thing for anyone to spend some time doing ( If this interests you, then there are lots of places that you can find information about your ancestors, with local archives and personal records being good examples. Another prime source of information is gravestone memorials, which can reveal a lot more than you might think that they would do.

Grave markers can be an essential piece of the genealogical jigsaw, because of their inscriptions or epitaphs ( Since their introduction centuries ago, the tradition has been to record name, age, and death date. Over the years, and particularly during the Victorian era, this developed into the addition of other information, such as family links (“brother of,” “wife of,” etc.) and occupations.

There is more subtle information and clues that can be ascertained too. One example is the gravestone’s size and quality, with larger and more expensive ones indicating that either the person was highly thought of and / or they were part of a wealthy family. Another example is the length of the inscription on the gravestone, which short ones are indicating that either the family was poor or that the person may have been responsible for some family misdemeanor.

You will also find that some gravestones have more than just writing on them, as symbols and pictures were commonly used in the past. The image of a skull and crossbones is something that you may well come across, but there is no need to worry if you do as this simply represents death, and does not mean that the person was a criminal, or was involved in anything unpleasant ( Variations on this include a skull with wings and an angel with wings.

Headstones inscribed with urns, broken columns, or inverted torches all indicate a life that ended too soon, whilst a sickle or sheaf of wheat represents the soul being reaped. An hourglass bearing wings suggest the fleeting passage of time. The Victorians, in particular, were very fond of symbolism. They particularly liked the weeping willow tree, which was used to suggest that, just like a tree, man must reach for heaven.

However, lengthy inscriptions need upright headstones, and, to ease ground-keeping maintenance, cemeteries are now steering a return to smaller grave markers, placed level with the grass. Creative epitaphs are gradually becoming a thing of the past, and today’s inscriptions are more to the point. Beyond the name, age, and dates of birth and death, they are often restricted simply to “devoted wife and mother” or “now at rest,” denying the keen genealogist further important clues for their search.

Still, this need not be a big problem, and should by no means cut short your family history research, as record-keeping over the past 50 years has become much more comprehensive, and so what has been lost on gravestones has been compensated for elsewhere. Besides, it is good practice to use as many sources of information as possible.