Here is a crosspost from a piece on Sam Gruber’s Jewish Art and Monuments blog — Concrete Tombstones, The “Poor Cousins” of Matzevot Typology — in which he considers the use of concrete in constructing Jewish gravestones — and the challenges of their conservation.
He writes that he first began thinking of the use of concrete for Jewish tombstones last week while watching, at the conference in Vilnius on Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (report on the conference coming soon!), the new film Testimonies Carved in Stone about the Jewish cemetery in Alba Iulia, Romania.
In the film, “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).”
In fact, he writes, […] 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.
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.