Fergus Wessell’s: Unusual Gravestones and Memorials

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.

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