Choosing natural burial can be the most wonderful option; the beauty of the landscape becomes the memorial and there is a reassuring feeling that the soul of the deceased is wholesomely integral to the environment.
For many however, when grieving, some sort of marker is needed as a focal point, to act as a shrine to the loved one. Of course the natural burial grounds need to be free of anything that doesn’t fit into the landscape or interfere with their beauty.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the conventional headstones you see in cemeteries, here we hear from Fergus Wessel and secondly Dominic Ropner, who both specialise in hand carved, alternative stone memorials.
Fergus, what sort of memorials are available as an alternative to a headstone?
I am often asked to make a memorial that doesn’t necessarily mark the burial spot, but rather serves as a place to celebrate the life of a person. Sometimes the memorial has a function, for example a sundial, bench or birdbath. But frequently the memorial serves no other purpose other than being a commemorative work of art.
It may go straight into the ground like an obelisk, or could be fixed to a wall in the form of a plaque. Another option is a small round “pebble” memorial that can rest amongst some trees or flowers. The pebbles are particularly tactile and warm to the touch, and they invite you to feel the stone and the lettering.
If you want a more conventional memorial, I also love the “pebble style” as a headstone. It is less imposing and more natural than a typical headstone. Again the sides are wonderfully smooth to the touch, and they need not be very tall.
These stones can be placed in a woodland setting if regulations allow or even in someone’s garden.
How do you make the pebble stones?
The pebbles are shaped from a sawn block of stone. The finishing is done by hand to ensure a completely ripple free and smooth, flowing surface.
How do you choose the material and what stones would blend best into a natural burial ground?
It is firstly important to look at materials local to a site. We also look at the cemetery’s regulations. Usually the client will have an idea of the inscription before the material is chosen, and so we need to choose the material to match the quantity of lettering. For example, slate can take lots of small, detailed lettering, whereas limestone needs larger, bolder letterforms. Shape and size are also factors when choosing the right stone.
How small can the memorials be?
As they do not necessarily mark a grave, they could be a small plaque, a pebble or paper weight. A memorial is often a record of a person’s life, especially in a burial ground, but it doesn’t need to actually record facts; it could simply invoke a memory, for example just the first name or a small carving might be enough.
However, if the stone is to be placed in a public place, it would be wise to make it heavy enough to prevent it from being moved.
Why is it important to make these memorials by hand?
Making a memorial by hand gives the maker complete control. One is not restricted to ‘ off the shelf’ shapes and sizes, or locked into boring design templates.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a more natural memorial for their loved one?
The most important thing is to take your time. Do not be hurried into choosing something straight away. I always advise people to wait at least a year after the death because this gives them time to reflect and for emotions to settle. If you choose a memorial too soon, you might later regret the wording you chose.
Do not be bound by convention. Almost anything is possible. You can make the memorial very unique and personal. One client asked me to drill a hole in the stone where he placed his wife’s wedding ring, with the intention that it would then be covered for eternity, a secret between himself and his wife. Others might choose to have an inscription on a part of the stone that might be underground, again a personal message to their loved one. Almost anything that can be drawn onto paper can be transferred to stone. The most important thing is that the stone is designed and made with love and care.
Dominic, what inspired you to become a stone mason?
My fascination with stones stems from the age of about nine, when my parents took us (my three older brothers and sister) walking along the Ridgeway from Wantage to Avebury. We saw many wonderful ancient sites along the way including Wayland’s Smithy, the Uffington White Horse and finally the huge Avebury henge and its ring of stones, I was hooked. From that time I have visited many stone monuments up and down the British Isles and the stone that they are made from has always excited me. Now I am grown up and my relationship with these stones has become even more exciting as I am able to work with them and pass them on to other people.
Which stones, other than the Wiltshire Sarcens, captivated you?
Well, at Stonehenge you have the wonderful mystic Bluestones from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire along side the huge Sarsen stones. The facinating Holed Stones from Cornwall like Men-An-Tol and the Tolvan Stone that were made from the solid Cornish granite. Then there is the beautiful red sand stone that was used for the building of The Stones Of Stenness on the far flung Orkneys Islands.
So what is unique about what you offer?
My memorials are made from weathered surface stones that I buy from farmers up and down the country. I mostly use Cornish granite, river washed limestone from the river Tees in Co Durham, Preseli Bluestone from Wales and Sarsen Stone from Wiltshire. All the inscriptions and symbols are hand carved and I deliver and install stones all over the UK. I also have a stone display area and yard in Hampshire where people are able to view or choose stones by appointment.
Fergus Wessel’s work can be found all over the UK including St Paul’s Cathedral. www.stoneletters.com
For Dominic please visit
This article was orginally published in More to Death, the official magazine to The Natural Death Centre.