When did graves start being marked?

There’s an old Hugenot graveyard in the centre of a very built up part of Dublin. Every time I pass it I wonder about what about all the other contemporary graves and where they’re located. Is marking the grave of a commoner (for want of a better term) with a marker a relatively recent development or do old graves just deteriorate to the point where we no longer notice them? I imagine in days of yore many graves would have been marked with wood that will have disintegrated but how does a place stop being recognised as a graveyard? I know of at least one park in the city that has been created by removing headstones and placing them along the walls of the park. I know of a few graveyards that contain gravestones dating back to the 17th maybe even 16th century but I’m not aware of any in this area that date further back.

Well, in North America, small settlements have frequently been abandoned.

I work for the Tennessee Department Of Transportation, & when we cut through woods or abandoned farms, we find old graveyards all the time. When everybody moves away, the stones fall, or are completely covered in leaf mould, & are forgotten.

Graves get lost all the time.

Tombs of “commoners” or people who weren’t of the royal family have been found in Egypt and the Middle East and date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

My hometown graveyard dates to the 17th century; markers from that time are still there, though somtimes hard to read. They were made out of red sandstone, which is easier to carve, but which can be worn down by the elements over time.

I would assume that the custom of using stone markers was brought over from England, since they started doing it as soon as the town was settled.

This is a pretty big subject and I took a class in college that was fascinating and covers some of it. The U.S. has huge Indian burial mounds in some areas. These were communal in a way but many tribes definitely had individual based burials with their own artifacts and that makes them rich for archaeological study. My family had one on our land when I was growing up and teams of archaeologists could find personal graves with ease in very large artificial mounds of dirt that marked them.

I spent two years looking for an old family graveyard at my inlaws farm in New Hampshire and finally found it laughably close (100 yards from the house). Although it was covered over with a trash dump and then a chicken house over 200 years, the base stones were pristine and the layout of the old, small cemetery was easily figured out in a day. New England has lots of graveyards in the 200+ year old range and many are kept up quite well. The main threat is vandals kicking over thin and fragile colonial headstones for fun and I believe that should result in the death penalty for them as well or at least life in prison. I am not really kidding. They are irreplaceable and still earn respect and a sense of history for lots of us.

We were taught that Egyptian mummies were reserved for the royals and the very wealthy. That was true at one point but mummification became so common at certain points in Egyptian history that it was more like dolls coming off of a modern assembly line than a sacred right reserved for the most elite. You can’t build something major on fresh land in Egypt without a significant likelihood of hitting a boatload of mummies as you dig. Some of these are previously recognized sites and some are new discoveries but the clues are generally there once you know what to look for.

The same thing is true for Israel today. One type of their “graveyards” is a carved out chamber that holds the remains of a family or people that are related in some way whether it is a close friend or other important relationship. Many of these are now covered over but they are found all the time during construction of big projects. They simply build over them and insert an inconspicuous pipe to the outside according to the Jewish belief. A number of months ago, the History (Discovery?) Channel had a special on the possible grave of Christ. I am as skeptical as they come and that show impressed the hell out of me as well as many other Dopers. Two thousand year old graves in Israel are all over the place and their contents including their small coffins are very well marked as well as things found inside.

This happens even in current cemeteries. I worked for a mortuary in Oakland once, and I was walking around the big cemetery of that city. I walked over to an out-of-view escarpment next to the outer fence, and saw dug-up old tombstones from the 19th century, just tossed about randomly.

About 2 years ago I visited this very well-known grave, which is well-maintained because the person inside still has a lot of enthusiastic supporters. However, the tombs next to it, on the side of the picture, presumably containing some of the “workers of the world”, are in very poor condition – so even in such a prominent location, tombs can become unrecognisable.

If you mark them with wood, they’ll rot away after a couple of hundred years, maybe less. If you mark them with stone, and go so far as have a name carved into them, then you need to pay for teh stone, and the stonemason. Not a system set up for the bereft of cash.

In my own family there’s a group of graves from the early 1600’s then none that I know of until the mid-1800’s. It seems they were financially well off for a time in the 17th century but their fortunes ebbed for a time.

In Georgia’s frontier graveyards, flat river stones were often used to mark the graves of the less affluent. The carvings on most of them have long since worn away.

Even in my hometown cemetery there is a section called the “Potter’s Field.” This is where those who were too poor for gravestones could be buried.

Sez Wikipedia:

The term comes from the story Matthew 27:7 in the New Testament of the Bible, in which Jewish priests take 30 pieces of silver returned by a repentant Judas. “The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

The traditional site of this is in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potter’s clay. This may be the origin of the name.


From the Medieval period until the mid-19th Century, you didn’t buy a burial plot, you just rented it. The body would be buried in a churchyard (holy ground) for a few years. After a certain period (which probably depended on the wealth of the deceased’s family), the bones would be dug up and re-interred in a charnel house beneath the church. See Shakespeare’s Hamlet for a famous example.

I think we should distinguish between a personal burial (with funerary items packed in with the body, mummification, etc.) and a marked grave that would allow others to identify you, the individual. The ancient Egyptian commoners’ graves–as far as we know now–had the former but not the latter. (Although perhaps all the markers were destroyed over the eons.) I would imagine that some of the early royal tombs of various regions (Egypt, the Eurasian Steppes, etc.) where the tomb structure itself was a grave marker (Pyramid, Barrow, Mound, etc.) would be the first, and marked graves for commoners came much later.

On the other hand, marked graves for commoners could easily have deteriorated in the intervening millenia, so maybe there were as many marked graves 3,000 years ago as there are now, and they’ve all just vanished.

Well, in neolithic Jericho (ca 7000 BCE) they’d bury their people (regular folk) indoors-- in homes-- and mark the site with the concerned’s skull covered in tinted plaster reconstructed features (for example) as markers. One would assume that those invested in the question would know whose they were. So that’s pretty darn early.

I’m not sure that the graves in Highgate are that useful a measure.
In the specific case of Marx’s monument, part of the reason it’s in relatively good nick is that it’s really not that old. The Marx family internments were moved within the cemetary in 1954 and the famous monument itself was only erected over them in 1956.
Neither are the surrounding graves random. There was a tradition of well-connected Marxists being buried in close proximity to their founder and so the surrounding plots tend to be rather notable and recentish in themselves. And better preseved than the average grave elsewhere in the cemetary. The most recent example of the tradition I’m aware of is that the ashes of Paul Foot, the journalist and Trotskist, were buried across the path from the monument.
(Of course, Marx’s most famous neighbour in death is, incongruously, Herbert Spencer, whose grave faces his.)

Highgate - particularly in the West Cemetary, where the current policy is “managed neglect” - is a good example of what happens when a Victorian burial ground is left to become overgrown and vandelised for half a century as it became uneconomic to run as a going concern, then preserved in the state it’d reached. Stones fall over and are broken, are weathered and become overrun with vegetation, but the plots remain identifiable. Having poked around for some obscurer people in the cemetary, it may take some rummaging in the undergrowth, but you can pretty much locate all the original inscriptions in Highgate.

On the broader question, Roman tombstones naming mundane individuals survive in reasonably large numbers. For example, from Chester that of one Publius Rustius Crescens, a thirty year old legionaire.