Quaker gravestones, traditionally, are small and plain. Only Friends names and dates of birth and death are included. The markers reflect the Quaker testimony of equality. Friends feel that the difference between people is not outward – titles, wealth, etc. -but rather inward -the spirit. Additionally, the markers represent the testimony of simplicity. Friends feel that they must avoid what is unimportant in life –again, titles, wealth, etc. -and focus on what is important -again, the spirit. They feel both testimonies are true not only in life but also in death.
In 1661, in London, Bunhill Fields –the name a corruption of “bone hill” -was purchased, as perhaps the first Quaker cemetery. The early burials there were unmarked. When Meeting graveyards were established elsewhere in Britain and America, they followed this practice was followed. Some Friends raised concerns about unmarked graves, however, because they wanted to remember where their loved ones lay. By the late 1600’s small blank markers had appeared and then, after a time, markers with just initials were installed. They rested flat on the ground. Many kinds of stone were used, though slate was a dominant material. Uncut stones and boulders were also employed as well as wood, though the latter has usually not survived. In the 1700’s small gravestones with names and dates of death as well as sometimes dates of birth or age were used. The months were denoted by number, such as in “First Month” for “January”. They were upright. Limits on size and information on the markers were strictly enforced by Meetings. Epitaphs and ornamentation were not permitted. Variants existed: in the Camden (SC) cemetery, bricks outlining an oval were used, with no gravestones. Slaves, Indians and poor whites were also sometimes buried in Quaker graveyards. In the 1800’s Friends occasionally began to be interred in public cemeteries but plain markers were still utilized. In the 1900’s granite and marble became the common materials used for gravestones. In the 2000’s the markers are still usually small and plain. Some Friends are now cremated, and some are buried green.
The gravestone carvers are often unknown for the early period of Friends. Presumably local stone masons, who often made markers as a sideline, were used. In the later periods full-time carvers and then professional memorial companies were employed. Probably few of them were Friends.
I feel Quaker gravestones were a perfect manifestation of early Friends’ beliefs. And they still are.
I also have a great affection for Friends cemeteries, as I do for all graveyards. To me they are not a field of burials but rather a field of lives. When I have visited them, I imagine the stories of these people. A quote about this from Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith & Practice:
“The gravestones speak of the past, of those who also served the Meeting, whose lives are woven into ours, as ours will affect those still to come.”
Pictured above (top) are gravestones from the Flushing (NYYM) Friends Cemetery and (bottom) gravestones from the Sandy Spring (BYM) Friends Cemetery.