Thursday, April 29, 2010

cemetery history and symbolism

last week i went to a community ed class on cemetery history and symbolism, taught by a knowledgeable guy who presented photos he’s taken of hundreds of headstones and other cemetery fixtures. i learned so much...i didn't realize that nearly all the symbols on graves actually symbolize specific things, like daffodils for rebirth and elephants for eternal remembrance...the teacher said that one reason symbols were used historically is because of illiteracy, so that anyone could “read” graves even if they weren’t able to read.

i visited a pioneer cemetery yesterday to see if i could find any of the symbols he talked about, and i was amazed to find nearly all of them. it’s such a different experience looking at graves when you can recognize the symbols--not only does it make me more appreciative of the art and help me understand the meaning, it also reveals so much about the dead and their lives and loved ones, and makes them more real. i got choked up a few times yesterday thinking about the deceased, especially ones who died young--you could tell from the stones how heartbroken their survivors were.

here’s a sampling of what i saw, along with brief (incomplete) explanations for the symbols i can identify--the teacher went through everything very fast and i was only able to write down quick notes. i know i could supplement this list by doing a few searches online, but right now i’m going for brevity. some of these stones have multiple symbols but i’m only listing each symbol once.

willow: mourning/earthly sorrow

hand reaching down: the hand of god

(hands/fingers pointing up: indicates the soul is in heaven; i have a photo of this but it won't upload for some reason)

hands clasped: husband and wife

urn: death of the flesh, immortality
flames/eternal flames: undying remembrance, soul rising from ashes (esp. on jewish graves)

tree-shaped stone: usually affiliated with woodmen of the world (fraternal organization that is now an insurance company)
lily: resurrection, innocence, purity

“dum tacet clamat”: “though silent he speaks” (woodmen slogan)
dove w/branch: eternal peace, gentleness, holy spirit
ivy: friendship

compass/square/G: freemasonry symbol; masonic ritual tools, with “G” for god

3 link chain: oddfellows symbol (friendship, love and truth)

cross w/crown: faith, external reward, christian science church
broken column: head of the family whose life was cut short

lamb (this one’s lost its head): gentle, innocent, children’s graves (lying down = suffering of christ)

palm leaves: victory, resurrection

anchor: hope, safety

roses: beauty; motherhood; can also indicate age (full bloom = full life, bud = young, bent stem = cut short)

open book: scriptures, perfect knowledge, book of life
closed book: end of life

arch/pillars/gate: passage into heaven

torch pointing down: end of family line

i noticed these little glass tokens on a few different graves--a visitor saying hello, i guess.

there were a couple gorgeous, twisted old lilac trees growing in the cemetery, in full bloom; one of them was bushy and healthy and lovely, but i prefer this snaggly one.


Tammi Thiele said...

Very nice photos.

Emily said...

thank you!

JJ Beazley said...

I've spent hours in graveyards reading old headstones - piecing together the dramas and tragedies they tell of. And sometimes they offer little mysteries to tantalise.

Katherine said...

I'm sitting here thinking about the symbolism someone would put on mine, if they were so inclined - the full-blown rose, the torch facing down. I'd be happier if it were a lamb eating a rose and standing on a torch, I think. :)

Emily said...

jeff--i was thinking about how amazing the cemeteries must be where you live. out here even the oldest graves are relatively new.

katherine--i like this idea, a lot...we should make our grave symbols as confusing and surreal as possible. and we should have vegetable plants and flowers growing atop our burial plots, instead of grass. let's start designing.

JJ Beazley said...

The oldest ones that are just about decipherable date back to the second half od the 17th century. There are few older ones dotted about in the old churchyards, but the inscriptions have worn off. They do have a distinctive slab design, though. And, of course, there are tombs of the gentry inside the churches that are much older than that - usually with life-size marble 'bodies' on top of them. There are two in the church near me.