Carved in Stone, Cast in Concrete

Something carved in stone—or more recently, cast in concrete—is supposed to be permanent, to last  4-EVA. Write, etch, chisel, and set can be swapped in for carve and cast more or less willy nilly without altering the figurative meaning of either phrase. That the expression cast in stone has been around rather longer than the technology that made your new kitchen counter possible (though not as long as the expression cast the first stone that lurks as an unindicted coconspirator in the linguistic drapery) is a reminder that a certain amount of distance between figurative and literal meanings is normal and if the figurative eventually upstages the literal, that’s just the way language works.

So, let’s be literal-minded for a moment and ask what sorts of things actually do get carved in stone and where they might appear in a contemporary urban setting. It turns out that the offerings are quite varied, as the following photographs suggest.



 A public building often identifies itself by its lintel, which may be made of stone, in which the building’s name or function has been carved. The West Branch of the Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Library shown here offers the viewer four clues in stone, each more abstract as we approach the sky, that this is a public library. Sometimes, public buildings such as libraries, schools, police and fire stations get “repurposed” as a town’s demographics change with the result that your condo or that trendy new restaurant may be mislabeled.

Mausoleums are typically not open to the public though the land on which they sit often is. Suffice it to say that as far as the resemblance between a  mausoleum and a library goes, if nothing else, they both tend to be clearly labeled, often in stone. One difference between the two examples here is in the mausoleum’s use of negative space chiseled out to form the letters.


What can you infer about the life commemorated by a gravestone? Sometimes little or nothing and sometimes quite a lot. If the gravestone is in a cemetery devoted to people, it is reasonable to suppose at least that the stone marks the site dedicated to a person. The person’s remains may or may not be buried at the site—for example, if the stone bears a date of birth but no date of death, it is probably safe to assume that the person whose name appears associated with the date is still among the living and therefore very much above ground. Similarly, if the stone is simply a marker inscribed with a plot number, you may have to make inquiries with the cemetery’s keepers for information about the owner of the plot to determine his or her particulars.

Of course, even the most detailed inscription is subject to the limitations of space and the medium, which is difficult to work and in which a misspelling is not easily corrected once it’s been, well, carved in stone.

Other Memorials

Gravestones commemorate those who have lived, both the ordinary and the famous. Statues tend to commemorate the latter and to keep them in the public eye.

This monument to Abbot Mekhitar—founder of the Armenian Catholic order that bears his name—contains not only the subject’s likeness, dates, and most notable accomplishment but the names of the monument’s sponsors and the date of its installation. The tradition of identifying the person or persons responsible for erecting a monument is a long one going back to ancient times and is still very much with us:


Like the memorial statue’s inclusion of the date on which it was erected, a building’s cornerstone often tells us when the building’s construction was undertaken.

Cornerstones can include information beyond the date. In the present example, a cross on one face of the stone tells us that this is a Christian church. Some cornerstones are hollow and contain cultural artifacts of the year of the building’s construction. (For example, see

In a Class by Itself

During the Depression, the entrepreneur Roger Babson commissioned a team of stone cutters to carve inspirational words and phrases out of some two dozen boulders in the Massachusetts woods formerly inhabited by the residents of the abandoned settlement known today as Dog Town. Ordinarily (Erma Bombeck’s tombstone notwithstanding), a monument in stone is framed by someone improving on the work of Mother Nature. Here, the frameworks are as the retreating glaciers left them millennia ago altered only to the extent required to expose the messages that we are perhaps to imagine have been locked within simply waiting to be revealed for our edification.

Photo courtesy of Eric Handley

One of the Dog Town boulders  displays the work of two hands, that of the stone cutter and that of the graffitist.

Photo courtesy of Eric Handley

Like the creators of ancient petroglyphs, the author of the neatly painted inscription below the original cutting is anonymous. So, of course, is the person who cut the original inscription, though presumably his identity was at east at one time known and a matter of record, while all we know about the graffitist is that he was either shaky in his Greek or interrupted while at his labors. (Actually, we don’t really even know that the graffitist was a he rather than a she.) Indeed, there is a range in the degree of anonymity in the authorship of words in stone or (in case you thought we had forgotten) concrete.

Dave’s handwriting was not nearly as neat as the author’s of “6,” but at least he signed his (presumably first) name. The significance of the “74” is not clear to us in the year 2010, but it is probably not his age at the time of writing nor, given the normal wear and tear on the heavily trafficked sidewalk, short for “1974” either, something we may ponder until the inscription is worn away or the sidewalk is repoured.