This vernacular headstone project was originally supposed to take place during the Cemetery Resource Protection Training Conference (CRPTC) in DeLand this past June. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, making the stone during the conference was not possible, and I had to settle with a brief presentation of the process. The video above, along with the description below, illustrates a simple tutorial on how to pour your very own concrete grave marker!
The term vernacular is regularly used in connection with language and architecture; it refers to locally-spoken dialects and architecture that has developed from local traditions, with emphasis on specific cultural characteristics. However, the term can be used more broadly than that. Its use in connection to grave markers generally suggests the maker is an untrained craftsperson expressing local cultural traditions. Often these handmade markers are made using easily accessible and low cost materials such as concrete. Though vernacular headstones often seem crude and unsophisticated amongst stones made of finer materials such as granite and marble, they can be a window into local traditions and provide unseen information about specific cultural aspects such as socio-economic conditions within a community. Gordon Bond with the NCPTT (National Center for Preservation Technology and Training) discussed vernacular grave markers at the 2014 International Cemetery Preservation Summit in New York.
We’ve found that we can categorize a folk grave marker as having been created by hand by someone who normally does not make grave markers as a profession. The maker may have been skilled or unskilled in working with the materials used. The marker must have been intended as a permanent monument and be on the actual grave. This differentiates them from temporary markers or monuments placed where death occurred, such as with roadside memorials. The marker had to be created at a time and place where the option of a professionally-made commercial marker was readily available, therefore making it an intentional choice to make one by hand. (http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/made-from-my-own-hand-an-introduction-to-concrete-grave-markers/)
1.Build a frame or mold for your concrete.
It isn’t necessary to purchase new wood for your mold. If you have scrap wood lying around, use that! Be sure your mold has a solid plywood backing, especially if you’re working on a concrete driveway. You do not want to pour your headstone directly on the ground or you might have to rearrange where you plan to be buried. Always use screws when assembling your frame so you can take it apart easily.
2.Pour the concrete.
Depending on your use of the stone, whether for Halloween props or your actual final resting place, materials will vary. For the stone I made in the video, I used one 80-pound bag of mortar cement. A smooth cement with no added aggregate is key to ensuring your lettering is clear, legible, and easily carved. Follow the instructions on the bag for quantity of water to add to the powdered concrete. For best results, keep your mix on the drier side, like chunky peanut butter. As you can see in the video, I added a steel mesh screen to the mix in the middle of the pour which will strengthen the finished stone and help prevent cracking. Tapping the side of the frame with a rubber mallet will fill gaps and help settle the concrete mix in the frame.
3.Finish your stone.
While the concrete is still wet, take your trusty trowel and smooth the surface of the stone. This will be made easier when using the mortar cement without aggregate. When it comes to lettering there are many different options, from stamping to hand carving. If you stamp your letters, either keep them wet or spray lightly with cooking spray so the concrete doesn’t stick. Hand carving is always a good option; however, you need to plan. Placing strings across the stone to keep what you’re carving straight can be helpful. I printed my letters on paper, then lightly incised through the paper onto the stone and carved out the letters. Once your lettering is done, wait until the stone has cured, usually with 36 hours. Remove the frame, clean up any burs or jagged edges with the edge of your trowel, and your stone is complete.