Vandalism in Churchyards

There are three main types of vandalism of monuments:

  • Breakage and uprooting of headstones by church people
  • Breakage and defacing of headstones by young people
  • Clearing of the land for development

A headstone is there to permanently mark the position of someone buried at the spot. In the adjacent grave would almost certainly lie the remains of a relative. But as soon as headstones are removed from their original positions, that relationship between the gravestones is lost forever. Some churches decide to simply prop the headstones against a boundary wall, but there is rarely enough space for all of them, and so the others are destroyed, sold as paving slabs, or even used as paving slabs or steps around the church itself.

Technically speaking, the stones will wear so very much more quickly if they are subjected to physical abrasion in addition to normal weathering.

The normal weathering process is accelerated by having the stones flat on the ground. Water stands on flat stones. In icy weather, the water in the surface of the stone freezes and literally breaks the stone open by internal pressure as it expands. This effect does happen on upright stones too, but much less, as the water runs off.

Why we need to Preserve Headstones

Historically speaking, stones should be preserved rather than removed or subjected to increased degradation.

Even stones which appear to be useless as records due to their inscriptions having been weathered away can be read under certain conditions and using specialist techniques. There is no excuse for removing even the apparently poor ones.

Stones should be preserved in their original positions, because they have a ‘relationship’ to each other. It is quite common to see several stones of the same family adjacent to each other, and usually in date order. Even an undecipherable one between two other family stones has importance in this respect. However, it is not at all uncommon for adjacent stones even bearing different surnames to be of the same family group. For example, a daughter marries, and she and her husband are buried alongside her parents and siblings. She may have a different surname, but the relative positions of the stones are still very important in establishing potential family relationships. Once the stones have been moved, this relationship is lost forever. There is a tendency when moving stones… even to prop them up against a boundary wall, to select the “pretty” ones, and then use the large, more “paving slab” looking ones for pathways.

Headstones are an important part of the country’s heritage. They are not something to think of as simply slabs useful for patios and pathways. If Shakespeare’s gravestone was to be made into a paving slab what would you think? So what difference historically is the stone of John Smith from the same period… or any other period for that matter.

The graveyard / cemetery as a whole entity is important. It is not simply a collection of individual stones, scattered in a miscellaneous pattern on a piece of land.

A headstone marks the precise spot that a person was buried. This is incredibly important to preserve. The headstone is there to commemorate someone’s life, where they lay to rest for the entirety of eternity.

It is sometimes stated that no-one ever visits the grave, and therefore its purpose has outlived its life. After all, the relatives are no longer alive, and no-one puts flowers there or tends it any longer. This is extremely poor logic indeed! With the great increase in interest in family history, more and more people are visiting the graves of ancestors. It is very disappointing and extremely upsetting to find that a gravestone has been removed. But to find that a decision has been made by some unrelated and uncaring person purely to make it easier to keep the burial place “tidy” and easier to maintain, and then use the headstone as a paving slab makes the situation even worse! Such an action is frankly unforgivable!

Preservation and not Destruction

We should be striving to preserve our heritage rather than destroy it. What would we think of our ancestors if they had removed Stonehenge and used the stones as building blocks for a wall or a causeway. They would make extremely good stones for a bridge construction. Of course, these stones of Stonehenge are much more important, after all, they are thousands of years old.

But a well preserved headstone in a graveyard will also become thousands of years old! We have a responsibility to future generations to make moves to positively preserve and restore them now.

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