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Mike Horne FGS

Unfinished Works

This is unfinished work that has not been edited or peer reviewed by the Society.

Geodiversity in the Graveyard.

(written 2015) 

What do we mean by Geodiversity? Presumably it is the variety of rocks in our local environment. Unlike Biodiversity which can be increased through careful management, we cannot do anything to increase the number rock types in our natural environment. All we can do it to try to conserve the exposures that exist; no easy task. However the variety rocks can increase anthropgenically in the built environment and a prime example of this is in our church graveyards and cemeteries.


Graveyards are an excellent too for geological education and sometimes geological research. Not only can they provide examples of rack types to enable us to teach geology they also provide links with various forms of history and environmental issues to aid public engagement with our science. Like natural exposures they are not a permanent resource – geoconservation is also needed in the graveyard!


Notes –

Safety – do not climb on or lean on the monuments – they may be unstable.

Respect – do not hammer, scratch or use acid to test the monuments.

Do not clean the monuments without permission


Real Geology – If you are ever mapping or researching the geology of an area there are clues to the local geology to be found in a graveyard:-

        Have a look in freshly dug grave to obtain soil and rock samples.

        Look at the stone used for the walls around the graveyard – they may be local

        Have a look at the store used for the church or memorial chapel – they might be local

        There might be clues about the geology in the location – e.g. it might not be sensible to have a graveyard just above the local aquifer.


Geological education –


Pure educational geology – can be carried out at many educational levels – from basic recognition of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic classes to more details analysis of rocks and structures. There are limitations though: no hammering!

        Identifying rock types

        Sedimentary structures


        Igneous structures

        Metamorphic structures

        Folding & faulting

        Weathering and resistance to weathering


Environmental studies – gravestones usually include a date of the death of the deceased individual and usually the stone was erected shortly after that event. By combining that date with the type of rock and its weathering we can make environmental observations.

        How legible is the inscription?

        Rate of Solution of marble by acid rain – the lead lettering will not dissolve

        Lichens on the stone

        Spalling due to frosts and rising damp

        Is one side more weathered than the other?

        Location – are gravestones under trees better protected from weathering?


We can make comparisons between these observation between urban and rural graveyards.


We can engage the public or students more by posing questions such as “how long will my gravestone last?” or “which rock type would you choose for your memorial?”


Social and economic history – from the variety of stones and the design of the memorials we can investigate changes in social history and economic geography.


Economic history - Trade routes and communication – when did certain types of exotic rock arrive in the area? The cost of the gravestone is mostly in the labour extraction of the rock and the working of the stone plus the transport costs. 

        Local rocks

        Exotic rocks brought by sea, canal, rail and road indicate the date of opening of new transport routes

Examples – first Welsh slates might indicate the opening of the railway; Larvikite might be more common in a port that traded with Scandinavia; rocks from India and China might indicate global labour costs.


Social history of mourning – the style of the memorial and wording of the inscriptions has changed through time and can form an interesting study.

Shape & design of the stone and sculptures – Examples:-

        Skull & crossed bones

        Draped urns and broken columns

        War graves

        Quaker cemetery

        Soccer balls, Hearts and teddy bears


Personalised sculpture and engravings - examples

        Life images

        Linked to career – locomotives, boats and anchors

        Masonic imagery

        Life images – carved, photograph ceramic or laser etched

        Hobbies  - such as cricket, soccer or angling - carved or laser etched

        Interests – support of local sports team, Elvis or meerkats


Wording of inscriptions has changed over time and may indicate our attitude to death, mourning and religion.

        “here lie the remains of”

        “sacred to the memory of”

        “called home”

        “entered the homeland”

        “passed away”

        “fell asleep”

        “gone fishing”

        “we miss you granny”


Social diversity –

        Place of birth



        Wealth & prosperity

        Life expectancy


Local History – memorials to the rich and famous; records of local events and tragedies. Examples

        Shipwrecks, airship disasters and international incidents

        Mass graves and associated  memorials for cholera epidemics

        Public funding of a memorial due to genuine respect for a local benefactor or unsung hero or the tragic loss of a young person

        “Important People” often wish to keep their status when they are dead with impressive memorials in a prominent position!


Family history – a potential source of information for dates of birth, death, relationships, place of birth, place of death, occupation &c.


Limitations –

When visiting the site behave responsibly

        Behaviour – show respect for the dead and their relatives

        Biodiversity – try not to disturb flora and fauna or allow a group you are leading to trample the area

        No hammering or use of acid to test limestones


Not everyone is buried and has a memorial – poor people cannot afford it, many are now cremated, inscriptions become unreadable, graveyards become wildernesses, stones are moved or lost. Your researches in to local, family and social history are statistically biased!


Other public engagement –


Art, design and aesthetics.

        Beautiful rocks

        Good or unusual gravestone design

        Using the site for photography and painting


        A place of peace

        A tranquil oasis

        Remembering and honouring our ancestors

        Reflecting on our own mortality


Conservation – like geological exposures gravestones will not last for ever but we can help conserve them. They are subject to some threats that can be managed – examples –


        Weathering due to nearby trees

        Becoming overgrown with ivy or brambles


        Subsidence caused by tree roots

        being laid down due to safety

        cars parking on gravestone pavements


Threats to the Graveyard

        irresponsible dog walkers

        fly tipping

        reduced access to prevent these problems


Protection –

        cooperation with site owners, managers, caretakers and wardens

        cooperation with local authority planning and conservation officers

        listed building status

        RIGS or local geological sites or geological reserve

        Cooperation with “Friends of the …” group

        SSSI or Nature Reserve

        Cooperation with wildlife or other groups

        Using the site responsibly and public engagement – if members of the public value the site then they will want to help protect it.


Increasing Geodiversity – can geologists work with site owners and memorial companies to encourage an increase in geodiversity? Or does that conflict with the concepts of preservation of local character? I have heard of some church graveyards banning Carrara Marble gravestones and words like “Nanna” from the inscriptions. 


Warning  - One last thing to be aware of if you lead a geological walk around a graveyard is there will nearly always be someone there that expects you to know where Aunty Edna is buried!


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