Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

20/12/2003

Gravestones

When you look at a gravestone or a Tomb in a Churchyard, a number of questions should spring to mind, like, when was it erected, why was it erected, what does the stone tell us about the person being commemorated, does it tell us anything about what the person believed, is there a simple or a complex design on the stone, what material is the stone made from, has the stone been moved from its original position, or if you have access to the Burial records or the Kirk Session records what more can you find out about the Gravestone or Tomb and more important about the people themselves.

The point is there is more to genealogy then a list of names on a piece of paper giving their births, deaths, marriages and children. In genealogy we want to meet our ancestors face to face in a sense. We want to give some substance a background to the names on our list like, what employment did they follow, where did they live, how did they die, where did they work, how did they fit in with the rest of the community, what was the community like when they lived.

For example suppose you find that your ancestor lived in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland in the late eighteenth century. How do you reconstruct his life as far as it is possible to do so? The first step you would have already done as you would have constructed a rough family tree and the questions that you are asking is coming from the family tree that you have prepared. Assuming that you have a date of death for your eightieth century ancestor then the next step is to find the grave if possible (information on how to do this can be found on
this site in the article entitled A walk down memory lane). Once you have found it have a proper look at it. In some cases Skull and Cross bones can be seen although by the eightieth century this was going out of fashion. This motif is normally found on seventieth century gravestones. Either way the meaning remains the same. That is the acceptance of death as it recalls the Book of Genesis in the Bible that Adam was made of the dust of the earth and that he will return back to dust, sometimes a hour glass is seen which means Time flies and waits for no man if vertical it means the person lived a normal life, if it is lying horizontal it means the persons life was cut short suddenly for some reason. Sometimes an angel can be seen with outspread ings meaning that although we all die, that we are all mortal, there is the hope of the resurrection of the body and that we will see our loved ones again in another life. Looking closer you may see a dove which means the Holy spirit.

Looking at the Tombstone you suddenly realise that you have entered a time when death was a familiar companion and was an accepted part of life unlike today when it happens in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital. In short the burial record comes to life in so far that it confirms that when a person died in the past they normally died at home and so people knew all about death from a very early age, in fact looking at the gravestone it is possible to imagine what living conditions for most of our ancestors must have been like and this can be confirmed by reading contemporary records of the period or looking at photographs if possible. This isnt groundless imagination as on many tombstones especially from the ninetieth century whole families can be seen being wiped out by disease. In fact at this period Leith had the highest death rate in the whole of Scotland. This is further confirmed by even children hymns of the period which in some cases are very morbid to modern taste.

PICTURE:The Carters Stone at South Leith

On many tombstones can be seen the tools of the trade of the person interred in the grave. If he was a Carter then a horse and cart will be

South Leith Churchyard: The Duncan Family memorial in the Mariners ground. seen, or if they were a Maltman (a person who brewed beer) the cross Malt shovels and so on. Each trade had its own symbol. The most famous being that of the Hammermen of the Crown over a hammer. The Hammermen being people like Coppersmiths, Tinsmiths, Blacksmiths.

However by the eightieth century what we may consider more modern forms of gravestone were coming into fashion and really what we find at this period is a transition style meaning that from the iconography on the tombstone it is possible to date the stone. So a seventieth century tombstone is usually quite distinct from a ninetieth century tombstone. Just in the same way a ninetieth century tombstone is quite distinct from a late twentieth century tombstone.

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