Marble Monuments and Headstones- History and Tradition

Taj Mahal

In our series on materials that are used or have traditionally been used in the making of monuments and memorials, we have looked at granite, marble, sandstone, limestone, bronze, copper, slate, and wood.

In this article we will look at the classic use of marble for memorial markers, statues, and monuments.

Throughout centuries of history, marble has been a popular choice for buildings, monuments, statues and other stone markers.  One of the most famous statues in the world, Michelangelo’s David, was carved from a slab of marble over 500 years ago.  Italy is home to countless marble fountains and statues.  Marble has been used extensively in buildings due to its beauty, availability and ease of sculpting by stone masons.  From stairs to pillars, marble can be found across the world. 

So what is marble and how is it different from granite?  Marble is simply limestone that has been compressed and/or heated deep within the earth’s crust.  Unlike granite, marble was never molten rock, but may have been heated and squeezed enough for the limestone grains to bend or flow.

Because of the way marble is formed it is lighter and softer than granite.  While this makes it easier to sculpt it also means that it is less durable than granite.  A visit to nearly any cemetery in America will show white marble tombstones with barely legible engraving.  Without other records, the history of these graves could be lost over time.  And while tombstones can be professionally restored, this typically only happens when a family member takes the time, effort and financial burden to do so. 

Famous Marble Monuments and Tombs

Marble has been used for thousands of years in buildings and memorials.  Some of the most famous examples of marble structures include the Taj Mahal in India, and the Colosseum in Rome. 

In the United States, marble can be found in most large cities adorning government buildings, post offices, and schools.  One of the most famous marble buildings in the US is the Supreme Courthouse in Washington, D.C.  which was built in 1935 and boasts a stark white façade.

Cemetery Use

The most common use of marble in memorials and monuments is in that of gravestones (tombstones or headstones).  Since it can be easily shaped and engraved by skilled stone cutters and engravers  into beautiful memorial pieces that can be found across the United States in cemeteries that date back as far as the 17th century.  Unfortunately, as noted above, many of these marble tombstones have eroded over the years and become illegible.

Monuments tend to stand the test of time, and weather, better than headstones, generally due to their larger size and deeper engravings.  One of the most famous marble monuments in the United States, the Washington Monument, stand at an impressive 555 feet tall.  The marble obelisk took forty years to build, due to a 23 pause in construction from 1854 to 1877.  Because of the interruption and slightly different building materials and processes, the amount and type of marble in the Monument is not consistent.  The lower 150 feet are a visibly different shade of white marble.

In recent years, granite has replaced slate and marble as the top choice for gravestones in cemeteries.  However, marble can still be a great choice for memorials of all types and newer processes and coatings can help marble to last for many years to come.

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Headstones for more information about memorials, monuments and grave markers for people and pets.

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