There is usually more than names, initials and dates on stones. Your ancestor's personality may be reflected on the tombstone. There may be carvings, icons, statues, epitaphs, scripture and emblems. Some of the carvings on a stone may be typical of a particular area of the United States. Once you view tombstones in New England cemeteries, you will soon realize that many of them have winged skulls and skulls and cross bones carved on them. The winged skulls represent the flight of the soul, whereas the skull and cross bones symbolize death.
Many tombstones had flowers carved on them. The flowers that appear to be open and blooming signify resurrection and renewal. Ivy on a tombstone signifies memory and fidelity. Lily signifies purity and resurrection. Roses are usually symbolic of sorrow.
Another common symbol seen on tombstones is that of hand pointing upward. This symbol points to the heavens meaning ascension into heaven. The handshake on a stone is a farewell to the earthly body. I have also heard that it is a greeting from a loved one who has gone before. It definitely signifies some type of relationship. Look closely at the hands and the cuffs. They will usually show a male and female hand and cuff. The hands may also be a parent and child.
Angels adorn tombstones and come in a variety of sizes. They are symbolic of the messenger acting as a guide for the deceased. Those who weep symbolize grief. Tombstones of infants often have cherubs and angels on them. Some may have lambs which symbolize meekness, sacrifice and innocence.
We have no way of knowing if the deceased selected the tombstone before his or her death. They most likely were chosen by the family after the death. Therefore, you should look closely at the dates. How long after the death was the stone placed on the grave? When I could not find a newspaper obituary or even a death announcement for an ancestor, I eventually turned to a newspaper index and discovered the date of death on her tombstone is wrong by over a year.
Fancy and large tombstones are usually clues that the deceased or family was affluent. However, small tombstones of simplicity may have appealed to the affluent as well. Some tombstones contain information as to the cause of death, military service and whether the spouse is alive or dead. The word "consort" on a woman's tombstone means that her husband survived her. The word "relict" on a woman's tombstone means that her husband predeceased her.
Epitaphs are often familiar sayings, but when you spot something unusual, it may contain some clues as to the thoughts or traditions of the deceased or their family. Scriptures are often a favorite verse from the Bible, but they may be symbolic of the way your ancestor lived.
Your ancestor may have an emblem on their tombstone which pertains to a social organization, such as the Masons, Order of the Eastern Star, Woodmen of the World, Daughters of the American Revolution and Grand Army of the Republic. There are hundreds of organizations and symbols that you might find on the stone or as free standing markers near the tombstone. The records of these organizations may contain more information about your ancestor.
Military tombstones often have a cross or Star of David on them. There are Protestant Crosses, Celtic Crosses and more. Study the crosses and you may learn more about your ancestor's religious preference.
If you are interested in looking at tombstones on Internet, there are many to be found on personal web pages. You can use a search engine to find them simply by putting in a surname, location and/or cemetery. Another excellent web page to explore is FindAGrave.com.
Cemeteries are places of history. They span decades and centuries and are monuments to people as well as culture. Walk through a cemetery sometime without looking for an ancestor's grave in particular. What do you see? As in life, you will see that the deceased are remembered by a variety of tombstones in all shapes and colors and styles. Cemeteries are history for each and every one of us, even if we don't have relatives buried there.
Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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