The earliest inscribed gravestones are those placed inside the church by wealthier inhabitants during the 16th century. Earlier fashions were for effigies, monuments and memorial brasses. The earliest one at St Mary’s in Pirton is that of Jane Docwra 1645, widow of Thomas Docwra Lord of the Manor of Pirton. Graves in parish churchyards were originally unmarked or were perhaps marked by an impermanent wooden cross. During the 17th century the yeomen, husbandmen and craftsmen began to erect tombstones in churchyards in imitation of their social superiors who were buried inside the church. The earliest tombstone in the Pirton churchyard is that of Henry Cakebread who died in 1758.
The earliest churchyard gravestones are found on the south side, near the church porch. The north side was regarded as the “Devil’s side” and was used for the burials of excommunicants, suicides and the unbaptized. This ancient superstition was eventually abandoned during the first half of the 18th century. The poorer sections of the community long continued to be buried in unmarked graves.
It is important to note that even if a person is known through the evidence of a parish register to have been buried in a churchyard, a gravestone may not be found. The practice of erecting tombstones became so widespread and the population increased so much that in Victorian times churchyards had to be extended and eventually public cemeteries had to be created. The churchyard at St Mary’s was extended on the north using land donated by Mr Delme Radcliffe in the 1920s.