Zinc headstones began appearing in American cemeteries around 1870 and continued into the early twentieth century. Taphophiles (cemetery buffs) call these markers “zinkies”.

Zinc plates were cast and sand-blasted to create a matte finish resembling stone. The surface was then covered with linseed oil and hit with high pressure steam, a process called “steam bluing,” to create a blue-gray color, also resembling stone.

Victorian marketers branded their offering as “white bronze,” and played up the durability as “imperishable by nature, ever enduring in beauty.” An element of modernity added to the appeal.

When left exposed, zinc forms a coating of zinc carbonate, which is rust resistant and does not attract the lichen and moss which are steadily eating away at their marble counterparts.

Zinkies are hollow. The plates bolt together from the inside.

Everything about zinkies was disruptive to the established headstone industry. Small zinc markers could cost less than $10. Customers selected a design from a catalog. A wide variety of decorative elements and symbols could be picked, making each zinc marker unique. Unlike stone carving, there was no “per letter” charge. If the inscription fit on the panel, customers could say what they wanted.

Zinc was inexpensive and easy to fabricate because of its low melting point, about 400 degrees Celsius (752 degrees Fahrenheit). Bronze and iron melt at much higher temperatures.

Most zinc grave markers were made by the Monumental Bronze Company, which operated in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1874 to 1914, with an abeyance during World War I, when the plant manufactured munitions. After the war, demand for zinc markers faded. The company dissolved in 1939.

More than a century later, zinc monuments remain in excellent condition and look distinctive to the modern eye. What happened?

They were certainly affordable, and therein lay the problem. Taste-setters of the day never accepted the inexpensive zinc grave markers. Many private cemeteries which catered to affluent families prohibited them as a cheap, inferior alternative to traditional stone. Over time, however, zinc has proven its mettle… Ahem.

Interpretation by Mike Roberts, 2023