This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
Made from My Own Hand: An Introduction to Concrete Grave Markers by Gordon Bond and Stephanie M. Hoagland
Stephanie Hoagland: Good morning. Yesterday Jonathan Appell showed us some concrete that you never want to see in a cemetery, but today we’re going to show you some concrete that actually makes us happy.
When we’re not working, Gordon and I enjoy exploring the cemeteries around our home in New Jersey. While many see cemeteries as sad places and reminders of their mortality, as historians we understand the vernacular history they reflect.
Unlike most people, we were already familiar with the old brownstones and modern granite markers, but looking beyond these we started noticing odd markers, seemingly homemade. In one case, the inscription on a fine metal marker from a husband to his wife even clearly stated that it had been, quote, “made from my own hand.” Our curiosity was piqued.
We discovered that these markers were constructed from a variety of materials, including concrete, wood and metal. They could be simple in form, but they could also be more elaborate, incorporating complex shapes and various means of decorating and inscription. Other displayed a remarkable degree of skill and artistic sensibilities, sometimes making it difficult to tell them from professionally made commercial markers.
It soon became apparent that these represented a little noted aspect of vernacular funerary history, as well as folk art. Recognizing an area for original scholarship, Gordon and I have been conducting formal and informal surveys of the folk markers we found in New Jersey. The first step was to formalize the definition for what qualifies as a folk grave marker, which Gordon will now discuss.
Gordon Bond: Thank you. While there are often gray areas, we’ve found that we can identify a folk grave marker as having been created by hand by someone who normally does not make grave markers as a profession.
The maker may have been skilled or unskilled in working with the materials that have been used. The marker must have been intended as a permanent monument and be on the actual grave. This differentiates them from the temporary markers used until a permanent marker could be erected or monuments placed where the death occurred, such as with roadside memorials.
The marker had to be created at a time and place where the option of a professionally made commercial marker was readily available, therefore making it an intentional choice to make one by hand.
The largest cemetery we’ve surveyed to date has been St. James Roman Catholic Cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey, where we identified 253 folk grave markers. Now we found this to be a statistically useful data set, which reflects well what we’ve seen overall in other cemeteries that we’ve looked at. Based on the sampling, we see certain patterns emerging.
The majority date between 1900 and 1950, with the peak period between the 1910s and the 1930s. They are most common in Christian cemeteries, particularly Roman Catholic, and are very rare in Jewish cemeteries. The names and languages show a strong representation among Hungarians, Poles, Italians and Eastern Europeans in general. They are most often located on the outskirts of a property, along fence lines or in low lying and even flood prone sections, likely reflecting the socioeconomic status of the deceased. They’re also common in sections reserved for children, infants and the stillborn.
The largest majority of folk grave markers, however, are made from concrete. In the case of St. James they accounted for a full 91% of the markers that we identified. Now we are aware that there were commercially manufactured concrete grave markers available during the same time period. In 1910, for example, William R. Thomas of Pickens, West Virginia was granted a patent for a concrete headstone. His design even featured a method for including a windowed enclosure for displaying a photograph or a drawing of the deceased.
How do we differentiate in the field between a commercially manufactured concrete grave marker and an amateur one? For the most part, identifying them is pretty easy. I’ve gotten to the point where I can spot one from across the cemetery, but there are some that will come to challenge our definition.
At first glance, to some this one might pass for a professional if somewhat weathered concrete marker. A closer examination, however, shows a non-professional degree of asymmetry. Note how the vertical body below the arms is at an angle, note how the bottom of the arms are not aligned, and notice how the curves are asymmetrical and out of round. You can imagine somebody making this, having no idea that all these years later we’d be sitting here critiquing their work.
Once we identified and surveyed, we next ask ourselves why we see this peak in folk grave marker production at this specific period in history. Certain patterns do emerge from our data, which we believe help to explain it. One was the influx of European immigrants during this same period, who tended to settle in urban areas where manual labor jobs were available. We have found that folk grave markers are indeed more common in urban cemeteries rather than rural. The manual skills that they brought with them or learned here were conducive to making their own markers.
These people also tended to be poor, so economics were likely a part of what drove their choice. This period also includes the stresses imposed by the Great Depression and the influenza pandemic of 1918. They brought with them a deeply established memorialization tradition that supported a quick need for a marker.
By contrast, though subject to the same economic pressures, Jewish tradition requires a yearlong waiting period between the time of death and the erection of a monument. This provides some time to save up some money, and there’s also fraternal groups that assist members with such arrangements and sometimes will provide markers.
By this time concrete was becoming established as a legitimate construction material. In theory you could take this bag of powder, mix it with water, and build bridges and skyscrapers. This was the image people had, so it suggests that there was a certain permanence that the material seemed to have. This, in addition to be inexpensive and requiring only moderate skills to use likely contributed to the popularity of homemade concrete grave markers.
Concrete also permits a wide range of design options, depending on the skills of the maker. Many of the forms found mimic popular styles seen in the commercially produced markers at the time. Now given the predominance of a Christian demographic it’s not surprising that the basic cross form is among the most common. There are also more sophisticated examples, incorporating decorative arm and shapes as well as the more complicated Orthodox cross.
Tablets of varying sizes and profiles are also found, though they are not as common despite their relative simplicity to make. More common are markers that combine the cross and the tablet into a wide range of variations that include what we call the shoulders, where the cross meets the tablet. The profiles, as you can see in these examples, there’s a wide range of artistic sensibilities.
Also less common, despite being simpler to make, are flat slabs and box shapes. Others, however, truly take advantage of the folk art possibilities of the materials, as these fine examples attest. In at least one example what we thought at first was a basic marker design turned out to be something much more.
At first we thought this example from Our Lady of Hungary Cemetery in Fords, New Jersey was just another tablet and cross. It had been laying flat and was overgrown by grass. We were curious to know if there was any kind of inscription, maybe on the face downside. We started digging around it to see if we could see the underside. We were surprised to discover that there was in fact two crosses on a common base, evidently for a double grave. Unfortunately, there was no inscription.
While we normally leave the gravesites as we found them, in this instance we elected to right the marker. This was the only such example of this double style that we’ve found to date.
A majority of folk grave markers have no inscription or are now illegible. Foreign languages and Cyrillic letters often complicate matters. Concrete also offers various means of inscriptions for those that do have them. The most common and most intuitive was to handwrite in the still-wet concrete. Some are very crude. The examples shown here, however, exhibit a greater degree of care, but even here there are clues as to their homemade creation.
In this instance there was an apparent effort to correct what appears to be a typo. This otherwise all uppercase inscription includes some lowercase letters. We also see backwards letters, perhaps reflecting on the literacy of the makers. Now the roughness and shallowness in this example may indicate the inscription was chiseled into the concrete after it was dried, akin to a stone carver, but also note the guidelines between the lines of text.
Commercially made letters are sometimes embedded or attached, as in the top, left and center examples. The lower left picture shows how embedded strips of metal have been bent to form the letters. Next to that is a hand-engraved plaque, and at far right is a mixture of commercial letters and hand inscription.
Professionally engraved plaques are sometimes found embedded or affixed. Cemetery-supplied temporary markers were sometimes embedded as permanent plaques. We’ve seen several examples where a plaque was embedded behind a piece of glass, but moisture in between has since obscured the plaque with corrosion and biological growth.
While many have no adornment, concrete also permitted various means of decorations to be added. Here are several examples of decorations created by hand or by using impressed objects into the still-wet concrete, reflecting various designs and iconographies. While rare, forms could be made to create concrete bas relief designs, as with the fine example at left which we’re going to return to later.
The true folk art gem to the right is from St. Rose of Lima Cemetery in Oxford, New Jersey, and appears to have been made using a combination of both molded and carved techniques.
Embedded coffin hardware, such as crosses and crucifixes, were also frequently used.
Now ceramic portraits are rare in folk grave markers, but the one at left is an example from Somerset County, New Jersey, showing Lewis Strako, who died in 1930 at the age of nine. The center example, from East Brunswick, New Jersey, incorporates seashells, while the marker at right from St. James exhibits a wonderful mosaic of rocks.
Green glass, electrical insulators and a strip of ceramic molding was employed in this example from Holy Trinity Cemetery, also in Fords, New Jersey.
This is one of our favorites. In addition to having sprinkled color stones into the aggregate surface and possibly having included a ceramic portrait, a pocket watch was also evidently embedded. While it’s mostly gone, you can see that there’s still some gears, some of the works still visible.
The inclusion of colored stones, pebbles and coarser rocks were sometimes employed to give the otherwise drab concrete some colorful accents and to add texture or mimic cast stone.
Now that we’ve discussed what these markers look like, Stephanie will describe how they were made.
Stephanie Hoagland: Many of these markers were constructed in the same way as cast stone or a concrete sidewalk would have been laid. A single or multiple layers of concrete were poured in lifts and a slurry coat applied on top, into which the inscription was written. Note the layers clearly visible in the side views of these two markers.
If the maker was familiar with concrete or cast stone, they would have been aware that concrete markers such as these require some form of internal reinforcement for strength. Unfortunately, the use of ferrous metal often meant that the marker has been damaged by the very thing added to make it durable.
Many of the markers do not meet the minimum depth requirement for reinforcement, which has led to its corrosion. But this damage has provided us with the chance to see the variety of materials used for reinforcement, including bent rods, smooth rods, twisted rods, flat bars, pipes and wires.
Examples are also found to have had no reinforcement at all, or to have used bricks or other materials that have since failed. This marker from St. Michael’s Cemetery in Fords, New Jersey revealed what may be the oddest if most creative reinforcement yet. Viewed face on the marker appears to be in fair condition, but the side view shows serious damage done by the reinforcement, cracking and a large spall at the back.
Taking that away revealed this odd configuration, which upon closer inspection proved to be a bicycle chain. Although now rusted, the individual links can still be made out.
Getting an idea of how these markers were made, however, doesn’t always mean the destruction of the marker. Often there are mold marks in the surface of the concrete that can tell some of the story. If you look closely at this marker, you can see the impression of the grains of wood used to make the form into which the concrete was poured. Based upon these, some idea can be had of how the form was constructed.
This same marker seen at the lower left of this image, note that the other three nearly identical crosses each shows the same form mark. Each has a C mark in the same spot, for example, and all show the same upward tilt at the bottom of the arm ends.
Looking at the first two face-on reveals further similarities. Note the unevenness in the bottom right arm of marker 47 is the same feature seen on 48. The overall shape and proportion of marker 47 also matches marker 48, and both markers match 49. All three were made using the same mold, although the coarser aggregate of 49 suggests it may have been made at a different time. This means that the mold was saved and reused. Telltale marks and common asymmetries in other markers indicates molds were often shared between different families in the same community.
One such example is the LaPenta marker. This is Frank LaPenta, standing next to the marker his father Dominic LaPenta made for his two daughters Louise and Mary. Both girls died quite young, one from a childhood accident and the other from influenza. Frank remembers seeing the wooden forms in the family basement, until they became infested with termites and had to be thrown away. He also recalls his father using the same forms to make a marker for another family at St. James, although this marker has since been lost.
The LaPenta marker is in such wonderful shape because Frank and his family have taken excellent care of it. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in most folk markers. While I work for a professional architectural
conservation firm who has participated in multiple cemetery restoration projects, no client has ever hired us to conserve concrete markers. Speaking with cemetery employees has shown us that most cemeteries do not yet seem to appreciate the historic and cultural significance of these somewhat crude looking vernacular markers.
When Gordon and I conduct our survey we note the condition of each marker and assign them one of five designations. Markers designated as excellent are those that look almost new. The marker is one piece, with no cracks or spalls, and the inscription is sharp and readable. Fair markers are those that look their age. They may have a few small spalls, perhaps a thin crack. There may be small areas of exposed reinforcement, but the marker is still in one piece.
Poor markers are those standing on their last legs. These markers usually have larger cracks, spalls and illegible inscriptions. Fragmented is a marker that has fallen apart but the majority of pieces are still there, allowing it at least to be put back together enough that we can reveal the shape and possibly read an inscription. Markers designated as decimated are pretty much self-explanatory. They’re often a pile of rubble or a lone standing pipe.
When Gordon and I participated in the 2012 conference for the Association of Graveyard Studies held in New Jersey it gave us the opportunity to return to St. James and see how some of the markers had fared over the last six years. Unfortunately, it was not encouraging.
This marker was already showing significant cracking and exposed reinforcement in 2006, as well as the odd inclusion of a large rock. When we returned in 2012 the back had crumbled away and the top had fallen off. While it had been painted a while ago, this marker was still legible in 2006, but by 2012 the surface had began to flake away. We had dubbed this odd marker “the oven,” and presume that the brick alcove was possibly used for flowers or votive candles. By 2012 a small shrub had began to grow through a narrow crack in the roof, expanding the crack as it grew.
While depressing, it wasn’t all bad news. This marker had been righted, received a fresh coat of paint, and a plaque clearly identifying at least the last name of the person buried below, although still lacking a first name or birth and death dates.
While we have concentrated on folk markers in New Jersey, we’ve also seen them throughout the United States and Canada. Wherever they are, they seem to have been neglected for a number of reasons. These markers can appear at first as crude and easy to dismiss artistically. If they are the graves of small children, surviving relatives may not feel a connection to the person buried below, or the marker may have been simply forgotten.
Further, the history and preservation communities as a whole have only recently come to embrace an appreciation for the significance of vernacular history. Being associated with children, poor people and immigrants, folk markers have yet to receive the respect that they deserve. Having the opportunity to make people aware of them at events such as this one is our first step.
The difference between a commercially made and a folk grave marker can be thought of as being like the difference between a Mother’s Day card you buy as an adult and the one you made in school as a child. Both are acts of love and memory, but the ones most cherished are those made, quote, “by my own hands.” Thank you.
Walk through some urban cemeteries and out back, beyond the fancy marble gravestones and grand granite monuments, you may find much more personal expressions of memorialization cast in concrete, carved from wood, wrought in metal, etc. Historians Gordon Bond and Stephanie M. Hoagland noticed these evidently homemade grave markers while exploring New Jersey’s cemeteries and were inspired to research the stories behind them. What they discovered was a little‐studied and underappreciated form of funerary folk art offering its own unique preservation challenges.
Calling them “folk grave markers,” Bond and Hoagland found that they were primarily created in the first half of the 20th century, peaking between the 1910s and 1930s, despite the long‐established availability of commercially manufactured markers. While encompassing a variety of materials, such as wood, metal, terra cotta, etc., the majority were made from concrete. They reflect a vernacular history of then‐recent European immigrants, with most examples found in Catholic cemeteries and largely urban, working class communities. They believe that a combination of established funerary traditions combined with the economic stresses of the Great Depression and social pressures of the 1918‐1919 influenza pandemic likely account for the choice to make their own homemade markers. But once these communities determined to do so, it was probably not coincidence that so many opted to use concrete. The early 20th century saw concrete emerge as a respectable construction material in its own right. Architects no longer felt they had to hide their use of it. Concrete was economical, available, and workable, yet also durable, making it an attractive option.
While folk grave markers were made by amateurs, these people were sometimes skilled or semi‐skilled working in such masonry. Forms range from simple, unadorned tablets or crosses to complex designs incorporating inscribed and embedded decoration. Some are highly artistic, reflecting the skill and creativity of the makers. By paying attention to tell tale marks or asymmetries introduced by the wood molds used in the casting of the concrete, Bond and Hoagland noticed the same molds had been used for different families. Overall shapes are found to have been copied from professionally made markers as well as other folk markers, lending community‐specific flavor to designs within cemeteries.
Concrete folk markers are not exclusive to New Jersey, however. Examples have been found throughout the United States as well as Canada. While the cultural backgrounds may be different, the same economic dynamics appear to be at work as well as the availability of concrete and the basic skills necessary to work with it.
Unskilled makers, however, often introduced unintentional flaws that would result in eventual condition issues. use of ferrous materials as reinforcement—or no reinforcement in the first place—presents unique preservation and conservation issues. Bond and Hoagland have noted multiple markers where the conditions have
rapidly deteriorated within just the few years that they have been studying them. Yet perhaps the greatest obstacle to preservation is simply the lack of awareness that these markers even exist among both the amateur and professional preservation communities. Understanding the historical, cultural, and artistic significance of these markers is the first important step. As such, folk markers represent an emerging field in cemetery preservation.
Bond and Hoagland’s presentation will introduce the historic use of concrete as a material for grave marker creation and the preservation/conservation issues associated with the practice.
Stephanie M. Hoagland is a Senior Associate and Architectural Conservator with Jablonski Building Conservation Inc. where she has been employed for the last nine years. She has a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Ms. Hoagland has worked on a variety of preservation and conservation projects throughout the United States and Canada. Recent cemetery work includes the completion of condition assessments and conservation treatments for Orient Cemetery in Orient, NY; Whippany Burial Ground in Whippany, NJ; Gold Rush‐era cemeteries in Marshal Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Caloma, California and the ghost town cemetery located in Bodie California. Stephanie is a member of several preservation professional groups including the Association of Preservation Technology and the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works of which she is a Professional Associate and the current Chair of the Architectural Specialty Group.
Gordon Bond is an independent historian, author, and lecturer. He is the founder and editor‐in‐chief of the awardwinning online New Jersey history magazine Garden State Legacy (www.GardenStateLegacy.com). He is the author of four books and numerous articles on various aspects of New Jersey history. He is currently researching a new book about Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African‐American to cast a vote under the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He lives with his wife, Stephanie M. Hoagland, in Newark, New Jersey.