What's a good typeface for a grave stone?

dan_reynolds's picture

What are good typefaces for gravestones?

All things being equal, I would have the Johns Stevens Shop in Newport carve me a stone. My question here is theoretical, though. If you were looking for a typeface to use on a grave stone, which would it be?

Unfortunately, John Benson hasn't ever released any of his inscriptional typefaces!

Thomas Phinney's picture

Will it the lettering be sandblasted or hand-carved with a wedge cut? Caps or U&lc?

I'm partial to classic inscriptional stuff myself.

If I can disentangle the family politics from it, I'll be doing my grandfather's gravestone some time soon. I'll offer several possibilities, but Trajan and Albertus will be among my top choices. I think my Grandfather would have liked Trajan, or some of my own lettering just on principle.


hrant's picture

Depends - Who's dead?


kakaze's picture

I want Castine...a font designed from the typography on actual gravestones from the 1700s I believe.

dan_reynolds's picture

Hrant, no one died. I'm not making a gravestone, I'm just thinking about typefaces that would look gone on one. You never know

gargoyle's picture

I can't believe no one has suggested Chicago

dan_reynolds's picture

>I think that that would make me spin in grave! Why not just set it in Verdana?

I *like* Verdana, but it shouldn't really be used off-screen. Chicago, too

kylie_white's picture

I would have to agree with trajan, very nice choice, also consider Perpetua

kylie_white's picture

Verdana works on screen, not on grave, those are just my thoughts

dezcom's picture

>...also consider Perpetua<


kylie_white's picture

great minds think alike

dezcom's picture

What about "Stone Sans"? :-)

It is a rock-solid choice and should be head of the class. I think I have dug myself a deep hole with that one. I will try not to make such a grave error again (not) :-)


dan_reynolds's picture

After coming to Germany, I've noticed that your "average gravestone" here looks very different from those back home in the States. In America now, some sort of Times Condensed variant is usally sandblasted into stone, along with kitchy decorative elements. Here, Solid pieces of stone are used without much ornament, but the letters are cast in metal and attached on top of the stone's surface. When a stone is actually carved, the letters are usually Koch's Neuland, or something similar and expressionistic.

miles's picture

I think Hrant had a point, for me it really would matter who's hypothetical stone it was.
It's like asking what would be a good typeface for a hypothetical person, since the medium doesn't really impose many typographic restrictions.

dan_reynolds's picture

Yes, Miles, I know. But, I'm trying to compile a general list of fonts that would generally work well in that medium

plantin110's picture

Ireland's most famous stonecutter Ken Thompson is a great fan of Eric Gill and his beautiful lettering is based on Gill's Perpetua face. I think its important to note that we are talking of letters carved in stone where each character can vary to improve legibility or to enhance the design and not type design where the characters do not vary but must still fit together to compose harmonious text. On monuments where a typeface has been used - usually sandblasted - the results always -to my eye- look awkward

dan_reynolds's picture

Well, Gotham* looks pretty good sand-blasted on the Freedom Tower keystone, and Optima on the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial isn't too shaby, either. I still think that quality can just be a matter of picking the "right" typeface.

*Yes I know, Miles, content counts, and Gotham IS New York

hrant's picture

I think a memorial to humans should be hand-carved, no matter what font you use [as a model]. BTW, wasn't the Vietnam thing hand-carved by John Benson?


rathna's picture

I think you'll might find Martin Andrew's talk at St.Bride's last year interesting. He spoke about (and showed some super examples of) coffin plates from the vaults of St.Marylebone Church, London. The plates date from 1801. He also talks about 'The Universal Penmen' a hugely influential book on lettering in the 18th century.

The paper is up on the website (http://www.stbride.org). Unfortunately the site doesn't allow you a direct link but if you're interested, look under 'conference' and then 'Hidden Typography: the 2003 proceedings'. Its the first paper there, aptly titled Stiff Type:-)


dan_reynolds's picture

Hrant: no. The dates (1955 and 1975) were hand carved by John Benson. The text is Optima, the font he recommended to Maya Lin; this was not hand carved.

The FDR memorial's text was designed by Benson. He made a font, and then sandblasted all of the letters. It looks very good, even though it isn't hand carved. Benson never released this face.

His son Nick designed and carved the text for the WWII memorial in DC. This was also made via a Johns Stevens Shop proprietary font that was sandblasted.

The reason that John and Nick sand blast large amounts of text is that in these cases, it would cost too much and take to long to do by hand. Nick spent 11 months working on site at the WWII memorial.

John Benson and the John Stetevens Shop hand carved all of the text at the JFK memorial at Arlington, and in I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery of Art.

hrant's picture

Good info Dan, thanks.

> it would cost too much and take to long

Then god(s) bless the Ancient Greeks. BTW, do you know why they used much smaller letters than the Romans? One reason is that they carved a lot more text. They used to engrave some parts of letters with a single strike. Which is why (or at least one reason) why their letters were so much more angular. None of that painting-then-carving-over balderdash; content first; pragmatic; human.


jfp's picture

I don't think that any type can be used to cut on stone. A proper design is requested, not all typefaces are suitable.

If you know for example the British Museum stone cuts, you can see there that the horrible Rotis is again used for the stone carving as model. BUT, hopefully, the stone cutter have done a very good job and transformed the original Rotis into a workable type for such job.

Also, I don't see any Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni or a Grotesque Sans, cut on stone. Specially not so much lowercases and specially not Italics!

Humanistic Caps only (or something like Lithos), a good creative letterform design, not specially connected to usual Rome models. Well spaced, with some ligatures :-)

(I'm probably to traditionnalist on that area?)

hrant's picture

> specially not Italics!

This is on the face of a (design?) university in Amsterdam:
But personally I agree with you... Italic is already bad enough in metal, much less stone! ;->


plantin110's picture

> in reply to Dan Reynolds I don't know the Freedom tower keystone >but I have seen the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial and I think it is an very powerful piece of work. It would not have been feasible to carve each name by hand and Optima looks very good. I'm just glad they didn't use Zapf Chancery. So yes it is

Miss Tiffany's picture

I like the idea of having my headstone done in Storm's Antique Ancienne or Biblon or even Libcziowes. They strike me as somewhat similar to those in Boston and that is the ideal I hope is found on mine.

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