Stones Of Faith - Pennsylvania Germans and their Gravestones



Pennsylvania and American German Gravestone Guide

Their Gravestones - An Overview

General information about the gravestones erected in the German area of Pennsylvania:

Each area, as it was settled, tried to set aside land for a church and graveyard as soon as there were enough persons to support a congregation. By the time a church and graveyard were established, many of its members had enough disposable income to afford gravestones.1

Most early gravestone symbols (1740 - 1820) were firmly rooted in the scriptures of the Bible. Some symbols such as the moon arose from folk beliefs and practises, while others such as the vase of lilies or the memento mori had their origins in the religious art traditions of Europe. On later stones, as the Pennsylvania Germans became more integrated into America as a whole, the funerary art accepted throughout the United States such as willows, laurels, urns and wreaths began to appear.

The stone of choice for gravestones in the 1700s was usually the most abundant stone to be found in a given county. For instance, in Lancaster and Berks the native red sandstones was used, although white, gray and yellow varieties can also be found. In Northampton limestone is the material of choice because of its abundance in this area. In some graveyards slate is used but it is not common. For those who could not afford professionally carved gravestones, or when they were not available, often roughly shaped and carved field stones were set up. After the 1830s all stone types fell out of favor except white marble, the choice for gravestones throughout America at that time.

The fonts used to inscribe the stones ranged from block print to beautifully craved fraktur script. Fraktur script is very difficult for the modern eye to read, so when trying to decipher this script it is a good idea to take a reference sheet with you.

Unfortunately stones were not always engraved. In some areas, as a possible cost saving measure or a fashion preference, the information about the deceased was painted onto a smoothed surface section of the stone. If the wonderful colors of the fraktur are an example of the colors used, the graveyards of the early Pennsylvanian Germans must have been a delight to the eye. This practise makes gathering information from these stones, both for genealogical reasons (where church graveyard records are inaccessible) or the dating of carving styles, impossible because the paint has worn away.

An unfortunate side effect of using sandstone and limestone is that they oxidizes black when exposed to modern pollutants. This makes reading (and photographing) these stones difficult. If you need to get an inscription off a stone, please use safe methods that will not damage a possibly already fragile surface.

End Of Page

Copyright 1985-2005 Sandra J. Hardy. All rights reserved.

Those interested in more information on the genealogy, history, folk art, translation and archeology of the PA Germans and their gravestones visit the Home page.