Signgeist #8: The Silent Language of Cemeteries

Seeing signs in graveyards

Environmental graphic (EG) designers often confront questions of longevity, permanence, and appropriateness. Unless a project is specifically temporary, such as a trade show, a pop-up store, or a digital display, the very nature of the work of the EG designer requires the end product to have a high degree of durability. After all, we deal with the real world, not the virtual, and the real world demands longevity.

We are all familiar with the expression “carved in stone” and its connotation of permanence. Stone endures, and the images carved into stone are some of civilization’s most informative keys to our past, our cultures, and our beliefs—the façades of Chinese, Greek, Mayan, Egyptian, or Roman temples or the Rosetta Stone, for example.

Cemeteries, too, hold the legacy of humankind carved in stone with the added bonus of providing a rich graphic history of civilization. Whether a majestic tomb like the Taj Mahal or a humble fieldstone inscribed with R.I.P., we generally choose to remember and honor our dead in a manner that is permanent—as if to confirm physical death is permanent.

A cemetery from the early 1800s has headstones of similar shapes and sizes.

An intriguing aspect of headstones and grave markers is that they, like posters or signs of their time, reveal stylistic graphic trends. Older headstones tend to be slate or marble decorated with simple motifs and easy-to-carve sans serif typefaces. Newer headstones are made of granite, and modern carving and etching techniques allow for more elaborate decoration. Sans serif typefaces were popular in the 1700s and early 1800s, followed by serif faces in the early 1900s. A resurgence of sans serif occurred in the latter 1900s—with an occasional script typeface used as well. Adding portraits is now becoming more popular as a result of advances in laser etching technology.

Marble headstone from the mid-1800s.

Carved granite headstone from the mid-1900s.

Carved and etched granite from the early 2000s.

Grave markers often become small memorials.

Letterforms on headstones generally fall into two categories: raised or incised. Incised is the more common form of lettering as it is easier to accomplish. Creating a raised letterform requires the removal of greater amounts of stone. Creating raised letters is a subtractive process in that the carver, like a sculptor, must first look for the letter “inside” the stone.

Raised letterforms and figurative carving.

Incised letterforms and graphics.

Social conventions are revealed through the inclusion of role or relationship, such as a mention of the spouse as wife.

Tombstones often reflect spousal relationships according to the social conventions of the time.

Symbolism is a common theme woven throughout many older cemeteries. The winged skull, common on headstones in New England from the 1700s, represented physical death and spiritual regeneration, or a freeing of the spirit from death’s grip. In some examples, the skull is smiling to symbolize that death is a freeing from earthly troubles. It is also associated with good luck. Other symbols are added to further define a person’s history, such as identifying the deceased as having served in the military during the US Civil War and a member of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Winged skull on a New England headstone.

Supplemental markers attest to a person’s military service.

The type of cross marking a grave can provide insight into a person’s nationality or family origins or even their social or economic status.

A Celtic cross provides insight to a person’s homeland.

An unadorned cross is powerful in its simplicity.

The length of time a family has lived in a town or county can be revealed in a single cemetery, underscoring the importance of place and kinship. In our modern, mobile, untethered world, family plots or groupings may become a thing of the past. These images from a single cemetery in rural Pennsylvania dating from the early 1800s to today show the pull of land and family. Dozens more markers for the Serfass family appear throughout the cemetery.

A sampling of family headstones from a single cemetery in rural Pennsylvania.

Cemeteries, like libraries and museums, are treasure troves of social, religious, historical, economic, and cultural information. While cemeteries can be a place of grief and sorrow, they are also places of quiet reflection, comforting solitude, and personal peace. And the stories there are carved in stone, forever preserved for generations to come. This is environmental graphics in its most enduring expression.

David Vanden-Eynden, AIGA, FSEGD, and his partner Chris Calori, AIGA, FSEGD, lead Calori & Vanden-Eynden (C&VE), an internationally recognized, New York-based design firm specializing in the planning and design of signage, wayfinding, branded environments, identity, and user navigation systems. Chris literally wrote the book on the subject—Signage and Wayfinding Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Environmental Graphic Design Systems—which was recently published in Chinese and will be issued in a second English edition in 2015.

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