A cemetery is made to memorialize the deceased, to remind the living of those who walked the land before them. It is a way for us to grapple with our inexplicably ephemeral existence. A rock is a symbol of that permanence. And as much as we’d love for rocks to truly be eternal, they crumble into dust like the rest of us. Early American tombstones were sourced locally. But not all rocks crumble (or dissolve) at the same rate and by the late 18th century wealth enabled some people to transport more eternal granites to mark the site of their burial. By the mid-1800s, trains facilitated the movement of heavy materials, and tombstones began to be sourced from farther and farther afield. It wasn’t until the 20th century that granite really
A band of calcium rich rock draws a line down the eastern mountains inland to Missouri and to the coastal lowlands in Florida. The rocks are lithified marine deposits, an accumulation over millions of years of organic deposits (mostly shells) from ancient sea life that lived in the warm shallow waters off the coast of North America in a body of water called the Iapetus Ocean. Over time the accumulation of these sediments lithified into limestones. Most limestone tombstones are old, thin, and white to stained black. The writing is often faint and tombstones are often cracked.
Heat and pressure metamorphose limestones into a much harder rock known as marble. While these are still susceptible to dissolution from acidic rain, they are more resistant than limestones. Marble quarries in the Champlain Valley, Vermont Valley, and Taconic Mountains have sent Vermont marbles far and wide, including to DC for constructing the columns on the Jefferson Memorial (link). Marbles are locally abundant and began to be used throughout Vermont.
Granite is the most prized rock for tombstones. It does not dissolve and weathers very slowly. It is harder to carve, so many of the more ornate urns and statuary are carved in marble but sit atop granite pedestals.