Project: Tombs for Tiny Tots

Pity, isn't it? Reading like a morbid morality play, or perhaps one of those creepy children's books by Gorey, this somber little graveyard holds the morose remains of several children who didn't listen to their parents and, as a result, met with premature, unfortunate ends.

Perhaps you are in need of a place to inter similar-fated children in front of your own creepy manse. If so, read on, for herein lies the secret to marking the remains of the restless (yet rambunctuous) dead.

As always, lest you wish someone to make a tombstone for you, wear proper protective gear when making a project.

Materials

Two tombs for tiny tots

To make these tombstones, you will need:

Introduction

These tombstones are very easy to make. We made a whole graveyard full in two evenings. Most of the time spent is waiting for glue or paint to dry, so it's really only a few hours of work.

They are also really cheap - our whole graveyard came in at under $40 (of course, we already had the drill). You should be able to get everything you need at your local Lowe's, Home Depot, or even Wal-Mart, with the exception of the skewers, which you might have to go to a grocery store for.

We've used these tombstones since 2002 without needing hardly any touchups or repairs, and they're still going strong. The only thing we need to replace each year are the skewers, but we have yet to go through our first bag of them.

Getting started

Makings of a Gravestone

The first thing you need to do is glue the styrofoam sheets together in pairs, making sheets that are one and a half inches thick (see image at right). Make sure to use a lot of glue - go all the way out to the edges of the styrofoam, and spread it out evenly on both sides before joining them together. (If you can find thicker styrofoam sheets, you might be able to buy that and skip this step, but really, it's not much of a hassle.)

Note: Since these instructions were written, we discovered that the pellet-style styrofoam, while eminently cheaper, is much messier and less sculptable than the denser foam you can buy at hardware stores. We now recommend you use the denser foam sheets instead, which can be carved with boxcutter knives, foam cutters, and other tools, and which will stand up better to repeated use. While the pellet-style foam will work in a pinch, you'll get better results from the denser foam sheets. We use the dense pink foam sheets from Home Depot now.

Shaping the tombstones

Cutting the tombstones

When the tombstones have dried, it's time to shape the tombstones. I found that a hacksaw blade works very well, giving you a lot of control while being very quick and easy to use.

The first thing you need to do is cut the sheets of styrofoam into thirds. For us, this yielded three tombstones at about 16 inches each. We just eyeballed it, since we didn't want all the tombstones to be exactly the same size, but if you want a more uniform look, measure before cutting.

Once you've cut the sheets into thirds, you can start forming the actual shapes of the tombstones. If you want all your tombstones to be rectangular, you can skip this step, but what's the fun in that?

You can get a fair amount of variation by leaving some of the tombstones rectangular, and cutting off the top corners of the other stones in diagonal chunks. (For the ambitious, you could also try rounding the edges with the blade, but I found that was difficult to get right. I ended up having to clean them up with the drill method described below.)

Curved tombstones

Sanding the tombstones

If you have a drill and sanding attachment, you can quickly make curved-corner tombstones to really add variety. I think these came out looking the best; it was definitely worth the extra effort.

It's a good idea to practice a bit on a chunk of styrofoam you cut off of one of the tombstones before you begin. There's a 'sweet spot' in the speed of the drill that gives you the easiest ride. Once you've got it down, you can quickly shape the edges of the tombstones.

If you don't feel comfortable eyeballing it, cut out a pattern for one side of the tombstone using a brown paper bag. Trace the pattern onto one side of the tombstone, and then flip it over to trace the same pattern onto the other side.

Painting the tombstones

Once you have the shapes you want, dust off all the styrofoam flakes from the tombstones, and paint them. Some paints can destroy styrofoam, so test the paint you have on a scrap piece before starting to paint, just to be sure.

Paint the front and the sides first, let them dry, and then paint the backs.

'Engraving' the tombstones

When the tombstones are all dry, you can start decorating them. This is the fun part!

Our first experiment was to try to bevel into the styrofoam, but that didn't work very well. We found that the best results come from just drawing directly onto the flat surfaces with a thick black permanent magic marker.

Here are the creepy epitaphs we used:

Poor little Lily
Food for worms
Didn't use soap
Caught some germs
Liked to play
Did little Matt
Played in traffic
Now he's flat
Poor poor Sally
Lost her life
Ran and stumbled
With a knife
Lovely lovely
Little Blanche
Fell from the tree
Hit every branch
Little Jenny
Too much sweets
Her little heart
No longer beats
Beneath this plot
Lies little Ned
Caught a cold
Now he's dead
Too much candy
Made Billy burst
They put the pieces
In the hearse
His sister caught
Him unawares
Startled, Sammy
Went down the stairs

I'm sure you can come up with more if you put your morbid mind to it.

We drew cracks in the tombstones that went from the front to the back to add visual interest, and on others, we drew little gothic ornaments like skulls with bat wings, or little 'RIP' signs. You only need one such detail on each stone, and they quickly start to differentiate themselves.

Planting the tombstones

Skewering the tombstones

When All Hallow's Eve finally rolls around, it's time to put out your tombstones. Assuming you have a lawn of some kind, all you need to do is take two skewers and shove them into the styrofoam bottoms of the tombstones, as shown at right.

Shove the blunt end into the styrofoam, and save the sharp end for going into the ground.

Be careful to push them in straight so that they don't poke out the front or the back of the tombstone.

The burial

Then, simply push the skewers into the ground (see photo at right). If the ground is hard, you can water it down a little beforehand, push the skewers into the ground first using the width of the tombstone as a guide, and then push the tombstone onto the skewers.

Voila! Instant graveyard.

Finished graveyard

We've gotten a very good response from these gravestones every year, which is great, since they were so easy to make.

Probably the best part about the tombstones is that they do double duty on Halloween. It gives a creepy ambiance for the children, and gives the parents something to do while they're waiting for their kids to go up and get their candy.

In fact, we've had parents asking their scampering children to wait so they could finish reading all the stones. Other parents kneel down and read each tombstone with their child, telling them that they had better obey from now on... or else they'll end up just like one of these poor spirits!