No Halloween cemetery display would be complete without tombstones. I used to make mine out of cutout cardboard boxes, with painted fronts and letters. They did okay but definitely weren't very realistic. And one Halloween when the wind and rain started up, it pretty much destroyed them anyway. I wanted something better and the only ones I found in the stores were expensive and too small to be believable.

This is when I discovered the technique of making these things out of extruded foam boards. The material is available at most any home store here in Utah (Home Depot, Lowes, etc.) in 4' x 8' sheets or sometimes 2' x 8' sheets. You can get varying thicknesses, most commonly 3/4", 1" and 2". Just make sure to get the Extruded Polystyrene foam and not plain Styrofoam. The difference is that this material is not small particles pressed together like styrofoam. It is a uniform material with a high compression strength that is great for this purpose. The two most common brands you will find are Dow (blue sheets) and Owens-Corning (pink sheets). Last I checked, Owens-Corning calls their product "Formular", and Dow is calling theirs "RS Styrofoam" although it is certainly not just regular Styrofoam. Regular Styrofoam (usually white sheets) would work for simple tombstones, but won't hold together cleanly at the edges when you cut it. You cannot carve the lettering as described below with Styrofoam, but the Dow "RS Styrofoam" (blue sheets) will work okay since it is actually extruded polystyrene.

The basic idea is to take a sheet of foam and cut out your tombstone. I use a handheld jigsaw, but there are also hot wire foam cutters available at craft stores like Michael's. If you use a saw like I do, or sandpaper later in finishing make sure to where a breathing mask to keep those little foam bits out of your lungs! Print out your epitaphs or wording on your computer and tape it to the front of the tombstone. Then you take a sharp exacto knife blade and carve out each of the letters with a V shape into the foam. This is the hardest and most time consuming part. You can use a Dremel tool to speed things up, but at the expense of quality and realism. After your done with the epitaph, the tombstone is painted to your liking.

I think the best place to start out is your local cemetery where you can get ideas of actual epitaphs, tombstone shapes, and finishes that you want to mimic. Of course this is the general process. For the specifics I will refer you to the best tutorial for tombstone making that I have found on the web, Moonlit Project. John Nelson has done a fantastic job at walking you through the process step by step, from start to finish. His tombstones are the most realistic you can find. Make sure to check out the tutorials on all three types; standard, ornate, and obelisk.

One question I have gotten is how do I anchor my tombstones so that they do not blow over by the wind. What I do is use a piece of CDX or plywood (3/8" thick) for the base that is painted black. I prefer this method to embedding PVC within the tombstone for rebar as I don't want to risk damaging the tombstone. I cut a rectangle out that is the width of the tombstone and several inches more than the depth of it. I paint it with a couple coats of black latex paint to protect it from moisture and also hide it. I attach the tombstone to the wood base with clear silicone, so that the tombstone front is flush or slightly overhangs the wood, and the rest the wood extends to the back.

I have drilled a single hole in the back of the base so that a large nail spike can be driven into the ground to hold the tombstone if the wind catches it. Be very careful when driving in the nail spike, you don't want to hit your foam tombstone. Click the photo thumbnail to the left for a picture of the back of one of my stones to illustrate. One drawback to this method is the extra storage space the attached base takes up, but the advantage is that you can set the stones out quickly and they will stand on their own so that you can adjust your layout before staking them into the ground. One tip: when removing them just grab the back of the wood base by the sides and rock back and forth to pull up and the nail spike will pop right out of the ground.

Here is a photo gallery of each of the tombstones at Raven Manor along with the year they were added...

2001 - This one is made of two identical pieces of 2" foam glued together to give it a 4" thickness. The base is a standard 1" strip. This is my first attempt at raised lettering. I used the exacto knife to cut around all the letters and the outside oval. Then I used a dremel tool to hollow out the area around the letters. 2001 - Our obelisk built from 1" and 2" pieces from John Nelson's detailed plans. A table saw is really needed for this one to do the bevel cuts.
2001 - This one is a 2" piece with a 1" base. The base was widened so 2 resin vases found at a store could be glued on each side. The rose on this one works well and was just a piece of clipart we found. As far as clipart goes, for this project simpler is better. 2001 - For this one a 2" foam piece is surrounded at the base by short 2" pieces. The front and back base pieces were beveled on a table saw at 45 degrees.
2001 - One of my favorites... This is a 1" piece surrounded with 2" pieces at the base similar to the last one, except without any beveled edges. The edges were heavily sanded round to give it a very worn look. It also looks older from the painting, including the stains from the letters. This one is almost identical to one of the examples at John's site. 2001 - This was the first stone I created. I started simple with the common shape. It is just a 1" piece. The bottom edge was cut at an angle to give the appearance that it has sunk into the ground unevenly.
2001 - This was a fun shape to work with. It is a 2" piece with a 1" base. The ball on top is just a styrofoam craft ball. I used a small wooden dowel to attach and glue the ball to the top to give it more strength. 2003 - We wanted to add some different styles and shapes this year. This is one of several crosses. The base is actually a cheap Styrofoam cooler upside down.
2003 - A great addition to our collection is this unique stone. I used the Dremel Tool to route out the arched sections. My wife did a great job painting this one to look like sandstone. The gothic shape gives the graveyard an ominous feel. 2003 - This one is a personal favorite with the name and epitaph taken from a great comedy on PBS. Are there any other fans of the show out there? It was tricky cutting out the curved cross shape, but it turned out rather well.
2003 - The main portion of this one is made from 3/4" extruded foam. There is a 2" slab for the base. The resin angel from a local store's garden section just sits on top. 2003 - A classic wedge shaped stone, made from 3/4" and 2" foam.
2003 - The smallest stone I have made, and I think I need to make more this size. It was small because it was the last one I made from the remaining material I had. I chose Snow out of the blue for the name, and guess what... that Halloween it snowed all day and night! 2003 - This one was fun to make. The ball on top is Styrofoam. I mitered all the corner pieces and fashioned a makeshift lathe from my electric drill to make the piece just below the ball. No name on this one, just a monument.
2003 - Kind of a unique shape for this one, it looks like an arrow with a cross on top. It was very easy to make out of a single piece of 2" foam. 2010 - Not a typical tombstone but more of a tablet tomb, the top of this is a sheet of 3/4" Owens & Corning extruded foam carved with the Leota name (a nod of respect to Disney Imagineer Leota Tombs, aka Madam Leota from the Haunted Mansion). The inscription from 1 Corinthians 15:55 in the New Testament reads "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?".
2010 - In rememberance and honor of Walt Elias Disney, who without his inspiration I would have never thought to create my display. It is very much inspired by the Haunted Mansion, which is mesmerizing without any need for gore or anything overly scary. The stone has his Club 33 logo and the inscription from the plaque over the entrance to Disneyland I thought was very fitting for his faux tombstone. He went too soon. 2010 - This small tombstone is in honor of my wife's grandfather Fry. He was a proud supporter of our Halloween display and a great craftsman who helped me make some of the early tombstones in 2001. The story behind the quote was that he would tell me "It's not a piano" meaning I didn't need to worry or fuss so much about the details as if it were a fine piano. For this kind of thing a little blemish goes unseen or even helps add to the realism of these pieces that are meant to be old.
2010 - A simple and very basic shape, cut with a slight angle to the ground to make it lean. The name Adeliza came from a book my wife was reading. I liked it because it sounded old and unique. 2010 - A classic shaped stone with a base. The name for this one came with help from my daughter who wanted to choose the name of Caroline Waters.
2010 - I made this one after one I found a picture of on the Internet. I copied it pretty much exactly except for changing the middle initial and the years by a bit. I really liked the detail on it and the old english letter E.