Frazer Blog

Memorial Ink: Honoring a Loved One Through A Tattoo

by | Aug 31, 2017 | For Families

arm tattoo

There are lots of ways to memorialize a loved one.

There’s memorial jewelry, like lockets or pendants. There are statues, monuments, or other graveside memorials. There are also portraits, prayer cards, and Tribute Videos.

But what about a memorial tattoo? Nothing says forever like a permanent tattoo, right? In fact, memorial tattoos aren’t uncommon, and they’ve been around for longer than you might think.

The History of Memorial Tattoos

Although tattoos have been around for thousands of years, it was in America that tattoos began to serve a new purpose. They became memorials for loved ones. Like so many of our other modern funeral traditions, memorial tattoos date back to the Civil War.

Early tattoo artists worked near Civil War battlefields. They would lend their services to soldiers to help them honor their fallen comrades, as well as document their new life serving in the army.

One of the earliest known tattoo artists was Martin Hildebrant. In fact, he opened what is thought to be the first ever tattoo parlor in America in 1846. During the Civil War, Hildebrant served with the Army of the Potomac. While serving, Hildebrant spent time tattooing his comrades and their fallen brethren. His tattoos also served another purpose. They helped to identify fallen soldiers on the battlefield.

With the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891, tattoos became even more widespread. While new reasons for getting a tattoo emerged, memorial tattoos still remained popular.

Meaning of Memorial Tattoos

Tattoos are just one of the many ways we deal with grief. Dr. John Troyer at the University of Bath Centre for Death & Society wrote about memorial tattoos in a research project titled A Labour of Death & and Labour Against Death: Memorial Tattoos in Later Modernity.

In a foreword for the research project, Dr. Troyer said that memorial tattoos are a “practice in which the living person seeks to make death intelligible by permanently altering his or her body…. memorial tattoo is an image but it is also (and most importantly) a narrative.” They help us to preserve the story and memories of our loved ones.

Theresa Winge, a professor at Michigan State University and author of the memorial tattoo book Body Style, believes memorial tattoos serve a specific purpose and help people acknowledge the reality of loss. In an interview with the Star Tribune, she said: “many people found the tattoo beneficial in the process of moving forward while still holding onto the one they lost.”

Memorial tattoos symbolize loss in a variety of ways. Some common memorial tattoos are initials, dates, song lyrics, quotes, portraits, and crosses. They are also increasingly popular. It’s estimated that one in five Americans has a tattoo. And memorialization is one of the top five reasons for having one.

Watch the video below to see people explain the meaning behind their memorial tattoos.

Preserve a Tattoo Forever

Now tattoos really are forever. Some companies, such as the National Association for the Preservation of Skin Art (NAPSA), are looking to preserve people’s unique tattoos long after they’re gone. NAPSA works directly with funeral homes to preserve tattoos of the deceased. The preserved tattoos are then framed and can be hung on a wall much like any other piece of memorial art.

Check out the video below to learn more.

What are your thoughts on memorial tattoos? Share with us in the comments below!


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