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Imitation , abrasion of a grave slab in the cloister of the Dobbertin monastery (1371)

Gravestones (outdated also "corpse stones") are processed, mostly inscribed, massive monolithic natural stones , which are usually set up free-standing at the head of a grave in cemeteries . Gravestones are used in most cultures and all major religions to commemorate the dead and to mark a grave site above ground. In addition, due to their almost indestructible material, they have an immanent relationship to eternity . Today's tombstones usually have the names and dates of the deceased, a cross or other symbols, and sometimes small pictures or a funeral motto . The design can be regulated by a cemetery order. In alpine regions or shortly after the burial of a deceased person, grave crosses are also common instead of gravestones (formerly also known as “ death boards ”).


Gravestones from the 17th and 18th centuries on the floor of St. Gommarus Church in Enkhuizen

In antiquity, entire streets of cemeteries were laid out outside of Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman cities ( Athens , Pompeii , Via Appia near Rome), which, in addition to small buildings, temples and monuments , were filled with numerous tombstones ( steles ). Roman gravestones with inscriptions and relief representations were found everywhere where Roman rule and colonization extended.

The Christian communities adopted the Roman custom of burying their dead at the gates of the city (sometimes in stone sarcophagi ) and placing gravestones in honor and memory. With the search for the intercessory assistance of the saints associated with the translation of relics into the interior of the church , the custom developed, the spiritual and secular nobility, and later also wealthy, to bury deserving citizens under the floor of the churches, chapels and cloisters. As an external sign of the burial place, grave slabs with inscriptions and relief portraits of the deceased were placed above the floor. These grave slabs were made either from marble, sandstone, limestone, granite, slate or metal (brass, bronze). When the floor of the churches was no longer sufficient, the grave slabs were attached to the walls and pillars of the naves and chapels in an upright position. In the further course the grave slabs embedded in the floor were erected to protect them from being destroyed by the abrasion of the footsteps. Other parishioners were buried outside the church in the immediately adjacent area (churchyard). Gravestones were also erected here, often attached to the church walls. Upright steles have been popular since the 18th century . In the period from the 17th to the 19th century, gravestones were provided with long biographical inscriptions in some regions. They are therefore sometimes referred to as "talking" or "speaking" stones .

Since tombstones made of granite and other rocks were expensive, tombs or crosses made of wood were often used, but these have often passed due to their lower durability. In many places, wooden crosses have recently been used as a provisional marking of the grave - until the final gravestone has been set. In southern Germany and the Alpine region there are often grave crosses made of wrought iron ; in the 19th century, crosses made of cast iron were popular at times . The whalers used whale bones on the Frisian Islands, and such monuments have been preserved on Vlieland in particular .

In addition to gravestones that mark the actual resting place of a deceased, there are also seldom those that merely remind of a person buried elsewhere. So there are inscriptions or separate plaques on family graves to commemorate relatives who could not be buried in the family grave because they B. died in war and were buried in a military cemetery.

In the past, old tombstones were often reused for other functions, such as stairs. The continued use of contemporary tombstones after the grave usage rights have expired is highly controversial. In some cases, the inscriptions are made unrecognizable before further use for profane purposes, as the relatives of the deceased usually find it disrespectful if they encounter the reused tombstone in a different context. In 2017, the media reported on such a case, in which a tombstone with an inscription was placed in an amusement park as part of the decoration of a “haunted house” and was accidentally discovered there by relatives.

Many cemetery statutes contain the provision that after the rest period has expired, the relatives of a deceased can remove the tombstone within a certain period. If you waive this, ownership of the tombstone will pass to the cemetery administration. They can then dispose of the stone or use it for other purposes. However, the latter rarely happens due to the relatively high costs of careful dismantling (see below), exceptions are artistically or historically valuable tombstones, which are then set up elsewhere.

Gravestones in different cultures

Christian traditions
In the case of graves in Christian cultures, the name of the deceased and the date of birth and death (or just the year) are usually given. In Catholic countries in particular, pictures of the deceased are common. Gravestones are often provided with biblical ornamentation, and in the evangelical area, biblical sayings based on Luther's statements are also common.

“If you wanted to honor the graves in any other way, it would be nice to paint or write sayings from the scriptures on the walls where they are there, so that they were in front of them, going to the corpse or to the churchyard . "

Jewish gravestones
They are called Mazevot and are often marked with symbols (eg Blessing priest hands , Levite's Cup , shofar ) to stress the importance of the dead in life. Often the inscription is in Hebrew on one side and in the local language on the other. It is customary for the bereaved to place a (permanent) pebble on the gravestone of the deceased when visiting the grave . For this, (living, i.e. perishing) flowers or plants are not in use.
Ottoman tombstone (Istanbul, 19th century)
Tombstones in Islam
After the burial, a grave can be provided with a tombstone that shows the name and age of the deceased (both according to the lunar calendar of Islam and according to the Gregorian solar calendar ), the names of the father or mother, floral ornaments, pictures of the deceased , may contain written references to their causes of death, Quranic verses and hadiths . There are some differences here, depending on the ethnic group and country, or on aspects such as the economic, political and social status of the deceased. On the mostly neglected Berber cemeteries there are nameless, unhewn vertical stone slabs, which serve less to commemorate the dead than to mark them to avoid double occupancy of the same space.
Graves in Japan
The tombstone is usually labeled with family xy grave , the individual buried family members are listed, if at all, only on the back. Family affiliation is determined patrilinearly . Customs and care vary, but many family members visit their family's graves on the occasion of the Obon festival .

Types of tombstones

A tombstone can have different shapes.

Standing tombstone
The standing tombstone is the most widespread variant of the tombstone. Thanks to its large, easily visible surface, it offers plenty of space for writing and decorations. The advantage of a standing compared to a lying tombstone is the higher resistance to subsidence. Thanks to the previously set foundation and the associated stability, the stonemason does not have to touch up even after a long time. This avoids any subsequent costs that may arise.
Lying tombstone (or " tombstone ")
Lying tombstones are suitable for both coffin and urn graves. In contrast to the standing tombstone, the lying tombstone has variants with and without a foundation. In the second case, the stonemason places the tomb on the grave without prior foundations and can bevel it slightly using a wedge on the back. The lettering on the stone is easy to read from above. The installation of the lying tombstone is cheaper than that of the standing tombstone, as this would require a foundation by the stonemason. Due to this aspect, the lying tombstone is more susceptible to subsidence and a stonemason has to straighten it afterwards, which can result in additional costs. Furthermore, the lying tombstone is more prone to dirt and weather conditions due to its horizontal orientation and proximity to the ground. Therefore, it needs regular care and cleaning to keep the grave complex in an attractive condition.
Meadow stone
The meadow stone is a small grave slab that a stonemason works into the ground at ground level. Grave maintenance is easy, as the grave owner should only regularly remove surrounding grass and remove dirt from the grave slab. No further planting work is required. Due to the size and maintenance of this type of grave system, the meadow stone is a cost-effective alternative to standing or lying gravestones with borders. Whether and in what way a meadow grave may be created is determined by the cemetery regulations, which should be inspected before taking certain measures.

Standing and lying tombstones can be set up with or without a border. In some cases, however, cemetery regulations require a border. A cover in various shapes (half-open or closed) can be attached to the enclosure.

Design rules

The size and appearance of gravestones in Germany are subject to the respective cemetery regulations . Gravestones are made from natural stones from all over the world. The cemetery regulations are the responsibility of municipalities or churches. The regulations deal, among other things, with the color and surface treatment of the gravestone, with engraved letters or letters made of bronze or aluminum. Some cemetery statutes also stipulate the content of the inscriptions, so sometimes only the names and dates of the deceased are permitted or "offensive" inscriptions are forbidden.

Basic shapes of the tombstones

Expertly conducted stability test of a grave (so-called vibration test)
  • Breitstein (mostly for double grave sites): width of the stone approx. 1.20 m and more, height varies from 1.00 m
  • Row stone (mostly for individual grave sites): width of the stone approx. 0.80 m, height from 0.80 m
  • Stele (mostly for individual grave sites): high, free-standing pillars
  • Urn stone (individual grave site or collective grave): Height mostly less than 0.60 m and cuboid
  • Pillow stone or lying stone (mostly for individual grave sites): rectangular to square shape (variable size approx. 0.50 × 0.50 m), approx. 0.15 to 0.20 m high

In addition, so-called design fields (independent grave fields in cemeteries) offer the possibility of setting up freely designed gravestones according to the ideas of the bereaved. Stone material and processing are freely selectable, the size of the stones is limited by the grave area.

As a general rule, however, a draft of each gravestone must first be submitted and approved by the cemetery administration. Exceptions usually only apply to graves for which a uniform design has been specified anyway.


Standing gravestones that are higher than 0.50 m are subjected to a stability test at regular intervals - usually after the frost period - to ensure traffic safety. A representative of the cemetery administration checks by hand whether the stone is still firmly anchored to the base and the foundation. A more complex test procedure uses mechanical devices that apply a constant load against the stone. This avoids the "uncontrolled shaking by hand", which could possibly loosen stones.

Gravestones as a genealogical source

The Verein für Computergenealogie eV documents the tombstones and publishes them as part of the GenWiki . By the end of 2017, tombstones had been recorded in over 4,400 cemeteries. While further personal data from the registry offices in Germany can only be queried 30 years after the death of a test person , tombstones are accessible immediately after installation and are not subject to any data protection regulations. On the other hand, tombstones are now often removed immediately after the end of the rest period , so that the photographic documentation not only secures the data, but will probably also become an important source for the grave culture in the future.

Import of tombstones and child labor

A significant proportion of the tombstones used in Germany and the stone blocks used for making tombstones are imported from India. In 2016 at least every third tombstone erected in Germany came from India. With a share of around a third of total exports, Germany is the largest buyer of Indian tombs. For a long time the gravestone sector had been confronted with the accusation that the gravestones were often made with the help of child labor, which violates Convention 182 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The Indian government assumes a total of around 300,000 active children in the province of Rajasthan who work in mines. In total, 60% of the employed children are in debt bondage . Different municipalities in Germany changed their cemetery statutes after knowing these circumstances. Gravestones are only permitted if they are certified as not originating from child labor, as awarded by the Xertifix organization, founded in 2005 with the participation of Misereor , or by the management consultancy WiN = WiN Agency for Global Responsibility with the Fair Stone seal . In the meantime these statutes have been banned on various occasions. The administrative court of Baden-Württemberg declared the statutes of Stuttgart, which were supposed to prevent child labor, invalid in 2015 and stated that “there is simply no state-recognized certificate for such gravestones”. Shortly before that, the administrative court had already declared the statutes of the city of Kehl to be ineffective. As early as 2013, the Federal Labor Court declared similar statutes of the city of Nuremberg to be ineffective.

Due to the direct import of stone material, the prices demanded by customers are so low that the processing of exclusive old tombs is too expensive. This is done for the professional dismantling of an old gravestone, the transport, the removal of old inscriptions and any other necessary changes to the stone (if, for example, the proportions of the stone have to be changed overall by grinding an inscription in order to achieve a harmonious overall picture) considerable (wage) costs that are significantly higher than the price of a new stone. Therefore, the reconditioning of old gravestones for new use is usually only carried out today if they have a special artistic or ideal value.

Selection of tombstone designs

Design development

In earlier times, in addition to the dates of the deceased, the relationship of the deceased in family graves, information about origin, occupation, occupation, functions, a portrait often burned in oval ceramics was common. Some old tombs have a motto or motto, some have a figural design, such as symbols from the realm of faith, but also from life. Examples are the hammers of the - ended - mining industry, with their heads crossed below. A new tendency is the greater individualization of gravestone designs that represent personal relationships or very sober original sayings like: That was all. Or: just lowered. This tendency is noticeably strong in German metropolises, also stronger at the Vienna Central Cemetery, otherwise less widespread.

Due to the change in the current sepulchral culture , which is increasingly finding its expression on the Internet ( online cemeteries and online memorial sites), the idea arose of the actual grave site with a virtual, Internet-based 'mourning room' - which the relatives designed independently can be - connect. In 2012, for example, the first QR tombstone with a 2D barcode was set up in a cemetery in Germany, which enabled digital content to be accessed with mobile devices and smartphones at the tombstone through the use of tried- and- tested scanning technology. The QR code , which was incorporated directly into the natural stone in a relief-like manner, was to be seen as a separate design element. A ban by the cemetery operator was therefore not possible.

Different usage of the word

In Switzerland, tombstone is a very common, slang term for the military identification tag .


In August 2013 there was a brief controversy in Duisburg over the question of whether a tombstone donated by a Hells Angels group for a deceased 17-year-old, which contains the rocker club's slogan encoded as "81 Affa", will be accepted. Although, according to the cemetery regulations, only Christian symbols and dates of the deceased should be included, the design of the stone was accidentally not objected to and so the stone that had already been set was allowed to remain in this individual case out of consideration for the grieving mother.

The Mainz Social Court (judgment, Az.S 11 SO 33/15 of June 19, 2018) awarded a plaintiff an amount of € 1,856.40 for a tombstone. As a justification, it stated that the burial costs to be borne by the social welfare office for the poor (Section 74 of the Social Security Code XII) also included the costs of a simple gravestone.

See also


  • Ursula Wolkewitz: The engraved brass grave plates of the 13th and 14th centuries in the area of ​​the North German Hanseatic League - their origin and their meaning: remembering - warning - teaching . kassel university press 2015.

Web links

Commons : Gravestones  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Gravestone  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Walter Lüden: Talking stones. Gravestones on the island of Foehr . Hamburg 1984
  2. Wolfgang Runge: Talking stones. Grave steles in the Oldenburger Land from 1600 to 1800 . Oldenburg 1979.
  4. WA 35, 479 ff.
  7. Origin of natural stones , archive link ( memento of the original from June 30, 2013 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  8. Björn Stephan: The children's graves . Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin No. 9, March 4, 2016, pp. 12-19.
  9. Government of India, Ministry of Labor and Employment: Report of the national commission on labor, Chapter VII: Unorganized sector , Archivlink ( Memento of the original of April 10, 2009 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked . Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  10. Some stone producers and importers reject reports of child labor on tombstones as false and point to the quarries where paving stones are made. They therefore filed several lawsuits against the organization XertifiX and the city of Munich, joined seals such as Rugmark and Fairtrade and founded their own aid organizations.
  12. ^ Information from a stonemason in the Middle Rhine region.
  13. Zentralfriedhof follows Facebook trend, from March 1, 2014
  14. ^ Hells Angels tombstone in Duisburg is allowed to stay