Gravestones and cemetery memorials, like everything else in life, follow fashions and trends. Long-established cemeteries across the region, such as the colonial cemetery in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, allow us to follow the evolution of tombstone vogues.

Hong Kong’s oldest surviving European gravestones date from the early 1840s and, like almost everything else then, they were imported. From the mid-18th until the mid-19th centuries, sarcophagus-like “chest tombs” were popular. The body was interred in the ground in the usual manner, and the memorial, shaped like a box made from stone slabs, was placed on top once the grave had settled and subsided.

Most stone memorials came from Calcutta – then the Canton delta’s main trading partner – where they were usually manufactured in prison workshops. The basic design was formed and a memorial inscription, such as “Here Rests …” or “In Loving Memory of …”, was carved before export. The deceased’s name, dates and details were later traced on and incised by a stone cutter in Hong Kong, which explains significant variations in fonts on any given gravestone.

By the 1850s, most gravestones in Hong Kong were locally made granite slabs produced by indigenous stone-cutting village industries (which largely pre-dated European arrival) in Shau Kei Wan, Shek Tong Tsui and along the foreshores of Kowloon Bay.

With rising affluence as the city developed, there was a renewed demand for imported gravestones; memorials made over­­seas enjoy­ed a cachet the local product did not, what­ever their true merits. Particularly status conscious were the fervently Catholic Portuguese. Heavily carved Italian marble creations swarming with weeping angels, dolorous Virgins and wreath-festooned crucifixes conveyed prestige.

The cemeteries of the day were well-used community spaces; funerals were regularly attended and religious festivals widely celebrated. An elaborate family grave was as vital to one’s social standing as dressing well, dispensing public charity and setting a good table.

By the 1920s, power tools had drama­tically reduced the production costs of ornate stone memorials, enabling a gravestone export industry to grow in Hong Kong. Most were produced by C.E. Warren and Co, which started out making pipes, tiles and sanitary fittings, but soon moved into this profitable niche. Marble graves in cemeteries from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur are fitted with small metal plates bearing the legend C.E. Warren and Co, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

British empire tariffs – mainly instituted to counter the expanded global economic power of the United States and Japan after the first world war – also helped Hong Kong’s gravestone industry grow during this period.

Raw materials and finished products attracted markedly lower tariffs when traded or exported to other territories in the sterling bloc. Consequently, gravestones made from marble quarried in Australia or New Zealand, carved in Hong Kong, and then exported to the Straits Settlements, Malaya or Burma, were significantly cheaper than similar products imported directly from, say, France or Italy.

Times have changed. Hong Kong’s modern gravestones are not expected to last “forever”; in fact, their average lifespan is about seven years in public cemeteries, which is the length of time that elapses before the grave is exhumed and the plot reused for another occupant. Anonymous components are partially recycled for a new memorial, but most are simply discarded, and so families now spend much less on good materials and eye-catching detail.

Small plaques used for columbarium niches offer even less scope for artistry and display – a further telling marker of the increas­ingly disposable age we live in.