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
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.