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Ask Tom: How have Quaker views on tombstones changed over time?

By Thomas Hamm
Professor of History; Archivist/Curator, Friends Collection
Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana

Editor’s Note: Tom has waited years for this question to be asked, as he is an enthusiast for cemetery and tombstone studies. His list of Quaker burial grounds visited in North America approaches 300.

Early Friends viewed tombstones as a vanity. The function of elaborate tombs and memorials in English parish churches, reminded worshipers of the dominance of local aristocrats even in death. Such vanity embodied everything that Friends found reprehensible. Friends also looked with suspicion on outward displays that served as manifestations of conspicuous consumption. At a time when few people could afford carved tombstones, the erection of one represented such a display.

London Yearly Meeting advised Friends in 1717, “This meeting being informed, that Friends in some places have gone into the vain custom of erecting monuments over the dead bodies of Friends, by stones, inscriptions, etc., it is therefore the advice of this meeting, that all such monuments should be removed, as much as may be with discretion and conveniency; and that none be any where made or set up, near, or over, the dead bodies of Friends or others, in Friends’ burying grounds for time to come.” American yearly meetings followed suit.

Many Friends, however, disregarded this advice, and local meetings were inconsistent in carrying it out. In some burial grounds dating back to the late 17th century, markers before 1850 are not found. In others, crudely carved fieldstones mark graves back to the early 18th century. North Carolina Friends appear to have been more liberal on this score. At Cane Creek, Deep River and Deep Creek, for example, one finds markers going back to the early years of those meetings. The debates continued as Friends moved west. As late as 1847, Indiana Yearly Meeting repeated its advice against gravestones. When Short Creek Meeting in Ohio removed all of the markers from its burial ground, some members responded by establishing family cemeteries.

By the 1850s, however, Friends began to relax this testimony. They apparently followed the lead of London Yearly Meeting, which had become concerned about unmarked graves being disturbed. Friends began to allow “plain” markers that were no more than 15 to 18 inches high, inscribed with only the name, date of death and age. In many burial grounds in Ohio and the Delaware Valley, this continues to be the rule. But for many other Friends, this manifestation of plainness has passed away.

Do you have a Quaker history question to “Ask Tom”?
Send questions to annieg@fum.org.

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