Gravestone Art: Stories Fixed in Stone
Thou shalt lie down with patriarchs of the infant world--with kings the powerful of the earth-- the wise, the good, fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past, All in one mighty sepulchre.” -William Cullen Bryant-
Often times, when someone thinks of a paranormal investigator, images of people ghost hunting in dark, creepy cemeteries come to mind. In some instances, this may be true, yet, what should be remembered is that cemeteries are not necessarily as creepy as they first appear. Cemeteries are places filled with incredible art and historical references. When ghost hunting, it becomes possible to appreciate the diverse art that cemeteries provide.
Gravestones are more than just sections of stone stationed as grim reminders of imminent death. Soon after they are established, these monuments become a place of comfort for the bereaved, and a symbol of remembrance and honor for the deceased. Gravestones are a form of immortality for those who have passed, reminding all who view them of the individuals they epitomize. Moreover, gravestones contain infinite historical value, displaying in their construction, the changes that have occurred over time.
It is unfortunate that cemeteries have obtained such a morose reputation. The fear of death, superstitions, and/or dealing with grief often causes people to ignore, what they would consider, a place of morbidity. Additionally, movies, urban legends, and other forms of media have only managed to add to the misconceptions and the macabre air that cemeteries and their holdings evoke. Yet, if people would take the time to examine the stones in area cemeteries they would witness the silent epilogues of the dead; the stories that the markers soundlessly narrate.
When someone passes away, family members remain behind and often decide the proper décor of the headstone. The adornments are often symbolic, representing a long tradition held by the family, conservative funerary art, or something the family felt was significant to the passing individual and/or allusive to their remembrance of the deceased. The symbols these markers contain and the uniqueness the stones exhibit in their composition can range from the simplistic to the extraordinary; causing each stone to be as colorful as the individual they represent.
After examining the various icons in any given cemetery, one can easily see from the range of diverse symbols that can be found: cemetery icons are often as diverse as the families buried there. Furthermore, headstones can relate specifics about the individuals who have passed. As it was once so aptly stated by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), "Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have (El Dorado County).” Funerary art can indicate religious beliefs, individual affinities and hobbies, or membership in Fraternal Organizations. Moreover, a combination of symbols begins to etch a story; a brief synopsis of the people who have passed.
When interpreting graveyard art, a gravestone interpreter must take into account the other symbols provided on the headstone and the era the headstone was erected in. For example, if the interpreter were to discover a headstone with the icons of a ship and an anchor dated around 1870, it would be quite possible to translate the icons as indicating an individual of a seafaring profession. In fact, sometimes and individual is characterized on their headstone by their professional title when they die (i.e. Captain). All of these clues put together paint a rather clear picture of the individual that the headstone represents.
Conversely, if a newer headstone were discovered, one erected around 1990 with only a ship and no other icons, an interpreter may be led to the wrong conclusion about the symbolism suggested by the carving. Questions like these could be further investigated in local libraries and through town records, however, it is important to recognize that not all questions can be easily answered, and some questions may remain unanswered due to poor historical documentation.
American gravestones and their icons exhibit vast changes in our somewhat short history. In fact gravestones and their art have evolved from the extremely simplistic to the ultra-stylish. Thus, it becomes easy to identify the significant differences between earlier headstones and headstones of today. Headstones of yesteryear display the religious concepts that the United States was founded on, the Puritan ideal of simplicity. Headstones of today reflect "The American Melting Pot," each headstone as unique as each American, displaying the diversity of the American people.
Cemeteries are equivalent to treasures to history hunters and it is unfortunate that many of today's cemeteries are falling into ruin. Constant exposure to natural elements, erosion, neglect, and desecration, are devastating the quality of the gravestones that stand at bits of history. Despite the gallant attempts of many people to save these historical monuments, many of these issues go unresolved or ignored completely, leading to the ultimate ruin of historical treasures.
More communities need to realize the importance of cemeteries. Communities should cherish the historical value that their local cemeteries provide. An exploration of cemeteries can teach our generation and generations to come about their ancestors, heritage, and their traditions. Additionally, people need to realize and discover that cemeteries and their contents are not a place of morbidity; they are a place of exploration and learning.
For further reading, we have compiled a glossary of the most common cemetery icons found in cemeteries. You can view the glossary at the URL located at the end of this article. As you view the extensive list, you will discover that in every cemetery there is an assortment of conventional and ultramodern symbols as diverse as the individuals they have come to portray.
Please bear in mind that the examples set forth are merely a few insignias, as it is equally important to understand that funerary icons take on different meanings in relation to societal influences, religious principles, in addition to, personal and familial beliefs and feelings. The icon of a ship is an excellent example. A ship may suggest a seafaring profession, but it can also indicate a fascination with ships or the Christian belief that religion "is a ship that can carry you through your everyday toils into the afterlife” (Anon3).
As you review the list of insignias, consider the stories being told by the deceased: they are meant as a source of remembrance. When viewing headstones, consider that the act of narrating from the afterlife is at an attempt at achieving immortality. Thus, once you are familiar with the common funerary symbols, you can visit some of your local cemeteries and listen to the dead speak.
A-Z Glossary of Common Cemetery Icons
Anon. "The Symbols: The Anchor.” Tomb with a View. World Wide Web. 2003. < http://members.aol.com/TombView/symbol2.html>. 22 Nov 2003.
Anon. "The Symbols: The Ankh." Tomb with a View. World Wide Web. 2003. < http://members.aol.com/TombView/symbol2.html>. 22 Nov 2003.
Anon."The Symbols: The Book." Tomb with a View. World Wide Web. 2003. 22 Nov 2003.
Anon. "The Symbols: The Moon." Tomb with a View. World Wide Web. 2003. 22 Nov 2003.
Anon. "Gravestone Symbols: Cross." Callaway County, Missouri Journal. World Wide Web.27 Feb 2002. .22Nov 2003.
Anon, "Tombstone and Art Symbols: Dove." An Excerpt from the Sexton Book of Tales. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Anon, "Tombstone and Art Symbols: Horse." An Excerpt from the Sexton Book of Tales. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Anon, "Tombstone and Art Symbols: Hourglass." An Excerpt from the Sexton Book of Tales. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Anon, "Tombstone and Art Symbols: Ship." An Excerpt from the Sexton Book of Tales. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Anon, "Tombstone and Art Symbols: Willow." An Excerpt from the Sexton Book of Tales. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Baym, Nina. "William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis." The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. 6e. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2003. 1073.
El Dorado County., "Benjamin Franklin quotation." Pioneer's Cemetery Commission. World Wide Web. 13 Oct 2003. .23 Nov 2003.
Evridge, Judy, L., "Hummingbirds." A Hummingbird as a Guardian Spirit? Suite 101. 1999. World Wide Web. < www.suite101.com/article.cfm/4660/25081>. 23 Nov 2003.
GAzis-Sax, Joel. "Learn the Language of Symbolism: Dragon." Cemetery Symbolism: A Wary Glossary. 1997. World Wide Web. . 23Nov 2003.
“---.” "Learn the Language of Symbolism: Wreath." Cemetery Symbolism: A Wary Glossary. 1997. World Wide Web. . 23 Nov 2003.
Original Posting at Suite101.com
Article written by: Dayna Winters and Patricia Gardner
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