Q. My grandma once told me a gravestone facing the opposite way of all the others in the cemetery indicates that person committed suicide. Is this true?
A. Cemeteries follow different traditions, but if a person who committed suicide were to be ostracized after death, it’s more likely that the body would be buried apart from others. According to the Association for Gravestone Studies, the north side of a cemetery was often considered less desirable, so suicides might be buried there along with paupers, slaves, members of minority religious sects and the unidentified deceased. Suicides also were sometimes buried upside-down, with the head vertically below the feet, as a post-mortem punishment; this required considerably deeper digging and, of course, is impossible to check without excavation.
Rather than a suicide, you might find that someone buried the opposite way is actually a minister. Many church graveyards were laid out east-west, with the head at the western end of the grave, to be facing the risen Christ on Judgment Day. But the minister was sometimes buried with his head at the eastern end of his grave so he’d be facing his flock at the time of Resurrection.
The rural cemetery movement, which began in the 1830s, diminished the role of church-administrated cemeteries and made cemeteries a fashionable place for recreation. These parklike cemeteries placed a high emphasis on landscape and design and might arrange their headstones to fit the contour of the terrain, following up and down hills or taking advantage of attractive vistas, rather than adhering to a strict east-west orientation.