Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Concrete Tombstones, The "Poor Cousins" of Matzevot Typology

Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Broken Concrete Gravestone. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Ohel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Concrete Tombstones, The "Poor Cousins" of Matzevot Typology
by Samuel D. Gruber 

I first began thinking of the use of concrete for Jewish tombstones last week while watching, at a conference on Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, the new film Testimonies Carved in Stone about the Jewish cemetery in Alba Iulia, Romania.  The narrator mentioned the use of concrete for gravestones for poor people, because of the low cost of the material. instead of carving an inscription, a short epitaph could be impressed upon the concrete while it was still drying. When I visited the Jewish cemetery in my ancestral home of Kalvaria a few days later, I immediately saw the concrete stones everywhere (albeit this is a much reduced cemetery, stones from the older parts are no longer visible).

 Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Broken Concrete Gravestones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Gravestones, Deterioration on Back. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Gravestones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Usually when working on issues of Jewish cemetery documentation and preservation talk of concrete, cement, cast stone or other similar composite materials comes up when discuss methods of repair - since the inappropriate use of concrete to patch stones can frequently cause more damage. 

In fact, a closer consideration of the material reveals that concrete was not uncommon as a primary materials for Jewish gravestones in the decades before the Holocaust. Just as the new material became a favorite in industrial and commercial (and even some residential) building, so too, it became increasingly accepted for use in the sacred setting of Jewish cemetery. 

 Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Gravestones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Gravestones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Kalvaria, Lithuania. Jewish Cemetery. Concrete Gravestones. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Part of this was probably its low cost compared to cut, finished and carved stone, especially expensive stones like marble and granite. Concrete probably was popular especially in those places where transitional local stones - limestone, slate, sandstone were hard to come by. In place like Kalvaria, Lithuania, well designed concrete matzevot may have been an alternative to transitional irregularly shaped field stone markers. A then again, popularity in a single place like Kalvaria, Lithuania, when most of the surviving matzevot are made of concrete, may be due to tha single artisan-manufacturer who championed the method. Elsewhere, more common than in the standing matzevot, was the use of concrete to cover the tops of graves with flat or raised concrete platforms, upon which other stones or decorations might be laid.This was also done in Kalvaria.  Often, in many cemeteries, when the true stone was stolen, only the concrete base remains.  

Discussion of concrete gravestone has probably been neglected for several reasons.  It is a relatively new material, so older and often more picturesque cemeteries do not have examples. As presentations at the conference demonstrated, most scholarship related to Jewish gravestones looks at examples from the pre-modern period. But another reason is that concrete can often only be easily differentiate from stone from close up examination of the examples. Photographs, especially when not close-up details, often make the concrete matzevot look like traditional stone. There are a few give-away signs. Concrete stones seem to date mostly from the 1920s and 1930s (though more examples may expand this range to earlier years). Like bricks and other molded objects, concrete gravestones tend to have few raised features, and usually have consistent thickness and smooth edges.  Decoration is often impressed in patterns from pre-made forms (just like bread-stamps), and so is often repeated on multiple stones. Many broken "stones" at Kalvaria show that iron reinforcement rods were often (always) installed to stiffen the stone which had to stand for years in a upright position. 

Today, metal detectors could be used to ascertain the use of metal inserts.  Corrosion of these through water infiltration can cause deterioration and eventual collapse of the surrounding concrete. Thus, the breakage of many concrete matzevot may be due to natural causes as well as to vandalism.

Concrete was also used in Chridtian burials, and there are many examples in the United States contemporary with those at Kalvaria. Conservationist Stephanie Hoagland, a Senior Associate and Architectural Conservator with Jablonski Building Conservation Inc.,  has written about some of these:
She says that  
"Many of these markers were constructed in the same way as cast stone or a concrete sidewalk would have been laid. A single or multiple layers of concrete were poured in lifts and a slurry coat applied on top, into which the inscription was written. Note the layers clearly visible in the side views of these two markers...If the maker was familiar with concrete or cast stone, they would have been aware that concrete markers such as these require some form of internal reinforcement for strength. Unfortunately, the use of ferrous metal often meant that the marker has been damaged by the very thing added to make it durable. Many of the markers do not meet the minimum depth requirement for reinforcement, which has led to its corrosion. But this damage has provided us with the chance to see the variety of materials used for reinforcement, including bent rods, smooth rods, twisted rods, flat bars, pipes and wires"
See: Jason Church,  "Made from My Own Hand: An Introduction to Concrete Grave Markers" (International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.)


Unknown said...

Dear Sam,

it is very interesting, your observations are great. What looks likely, that they also used metal Hebrew letters in the shuttering instead of carving the stone. At least it would have been logical. Can you substantiate my hypothesis?

Rudi Klein

Samuel Gruber said...

Rudi, I think you are probably right - though I didn't do measurements of the letters to make sure. There is a great uniformity of the lettering throughout. I don't know for sure how this was done - I would assume that letters were arranged carefully as full lines and held stiff and firm - like set type - and then pressed into the still damp concrete slab, which would be lying flat, probably still in its wooden or metal form. What do you think?
I'll post details of the letters and we can compare.

Stephanie H said...

These are really fascinating and the markers themselves are lovely and done with great skill. My husband and I have been doing a survey of the concrete makers here in the US and have found very few in Jewish cemeteries. We had attributed it to two main factors; the required waiting period between burial and the erection of a headstone (which gave families more time to save up for a nicer headstone) and the assistance of burial associations or societies in the Jewish communities (which you don't often find in Christian or Catholic communities). I'd love to hear your take our hypothesis and to hear if you have any other reasons why we're finding so few home-made markers in Jewish cemeteries.