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Cemetery Research: A Look at Tombstone Symbols

The headstones of our ancestors included elaborate statues, figurines, and romantic poems, or were just interesting in a way you don't see on the flat markers of today.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Gena Philibert-Ortega
Word Count: 1393 (approx.)
Labels: Death Record 
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Throughout the month of October the subject of cemetery research seemed to be everywhere. One of my forays into everything cemetery was a tour I took sponsored by the San Bernardino County Museum (California). We toured two local historical cemeteries, the Agua Mansa Cemetery and the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in San Bernardino. Agua Mansa, now under the auspices of the San Bernardino County Museum was in operation from about 1854 to 1862. Those interred were migrants from Abiquiu, New Mexico who came to the Colton, California area to farm. Those interested in learning more about this cemetery can check out the Museum's collections web page that includes a listing of all burials there at the cemetery, www.co.san-bernardino.ca.us/museum.

The other cemetery I toured was the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in San Bernardino. This cemetery contains graves of the Mormon pioneers who helped to settle early San Bernardino. A great website that includes pictures of the tombstones is at www.pioneerhistory.org.Webmaster Shawn Price has gone to a lot of work collecting history on this cemetery and uploading pictures of tombstones.

As I was watching the PBS special last month on cemeteries, A Cemetery Special, it made me think about all those great headstones that you just don't see anymore. The headstones of our ancestors included elaborate statues, figurines, and romantic poems, or were just interesting in a way you don't see on the flat markers of today. Now, don't get me wrong, I still think there are some great modern ones. When I was in Utah and Arizona, I saw quite a few family's list pedigree charts and family member's names alongside the deceased on their markers. I think that's great. But, there was a wonderful symbolism to what our ancestors put on their markers. Their headstones often were a reflection of how they felt about the person and their death. Maybe in order to understand that imagery we need to first look at a brief history of cemeteries.

A Short Cemetery History

In America prior to 1800, most people were buried on their own land or on the property of a church. Church graveyards became overcrowded and health issues sometimes arose from these burials. As garden cemeteries became more popular in Europe, America, too, started developing and using garden cemeteries. The first American example of a garden cemetery was Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which began business in 1831. It differed from church graveyards in that it was forested and had winding paths; it had lots of space and was planned so that it did not become overcrowded. These new cemeteries were very popular with the Victorians who used them as recreational areas. People picnicked, strolled through the grounds and basically enjoyed the surroundings. Pretty much by 1900, these garden cemeteries became the norm.

An interesting historical point made in the PBS special was that there weren't many art museums in 1800's America. People came to cemeteries to see the artwork that was part of the cemetery, such as memorial statues and other sculptures. It makes sense that before the advent of all the electronic entertainment devices of our modern society, people wanted to go somewhere beautiful and cemeteries were available to almost all people, except those living in very rural areas. Although it creeps-out many of us today to think about going to have a picnic in a cemetery, death was more familiar to our ancestors. The funeral home industry was just beginning and most of the arrangements that we take for granted now, were done by family members, not strangers. Family members often prepared the bodies of loved ones for burial and then buried the person themselves.

Gravestone Symbolism

There are many lists out on the Internet that provide definitions for various designs and initials cut on gravestones. According to The Association for Gravestone Studies (www.gravestonestudies.org) it's important to know that although there are numerous lists defining symbolism, not all symbols on gravestones can be defined in a clear-cut fashion. Scholars disagree on symbolism, so it's important to keep in open mind when viewing and interpreting certain symbols. With that said, let's look at some of the symbols you may come across.

Shells

In Agua Mansa Cemetery there was a grave completely outlined in oyster shells. Now what makes this interesting is that the cemetery is about one hour away, by automobile, from the Pacific Ocean. A pretty difficult trip for someone burying a loved one in 1860. We speculated that the person who outlined their loved one's grave may have worked in the restaurant industry and thus had access to oyster shells. Nevertheless, shells actually do have symbolism. According to The Association for Gravestone Studies, shells symbolize a " person's Christian journey through life and baptism in the church." They go on to write, "In the middle ages Christians wore scallop shells to indicate that they had made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostella in Spain. Placing a shell on a gravestone when visiting a site is an ancient custom and may in fact have several different meanings depending on the cultural background of the people placing the shells. The idea of crossing over a body of water to the promised land or crossing the River Styx to the afterlife, the final journey to the 'other side' is also part of the symbolism of the shell."

Lambs

Small reclining lambs often can be seen on the graves of children. The lamb represents innocence, purity and gentleness. This Christian symbol can also be a reference to Christ as the good shepherd. Other symbols on the graves of children can include small angels or a broken tree limb, representing a life cut short.

Trees

If you see a stone tree trunk for a marker it could mean a few things. The most obvious would be that the person was a member of the fraternal order, Woodmen of the World, sometimes abbreviated as WOW. This group was started in 1890 and is an insurance fraternity that paid out death benefits. Members of this fraternity may have a monument that looks like a tree trunk or a stack of wood. Originally, because of the society's motto that no Woodmen would lay in an unmarked grave, member's death benefits included a monument. When cemeteries started prohibiting above ground markers and the price of markers became too expensive, the society discontinued markers as part of the benefit. Today, although members do not have the sculptured markers of earlier members they can be provided with a medal that is attached to the gravestone. For more information on the Woodmen, check out their website at www.woodmen.com.

As mentioned, a tree trunk stump or a tree with broken limbs can represent a life cut too short. Now in the graves I've seen with this symbol, not of all them were graves of young people. An older person may have this symbol on their grave because the family felt the person's life was cut short, not necessarily that they died in the prime of life. The number of broken branches on a tombstone tree can also indicate the death of other close family members.

Dead Bird

One of the symbols I was surprised to see on a few graves was that of a dead bird, usually a dove. We were told that this symbol also indicated a life cut short. According to the Tombstone Art and Symbols web page, www.tales.ndirect.co.uk, a dove, sculpted as a living dove on a tombstone, represents the soul and peace. The dove is also a Christian symbol of the Holy Ghost.

Pointed Fingers and Clasped Hands

This is one of my favorite symbols. A single finger pointed upwards meant that the person had gone to heaven. Sometimes a marker may have a pair of hands shaking. If the hands have no sleeves, then this is symbolic of God welcoming the deceased person into heaven. If the hands have sleeves, one side a feminine ruffled sleeve and the other hand a more masculine sleeve, then this is representative of marriage.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of tombstone symbolism. There are so many more symbols that could be explained and this is a subject that can add to your understanding of your ancestor. For more information on tombstone symbols, check out Cyndi's List, www.cyndislist.com. Click on the category "cemeteries and funeral homes". A good overall book on researching cemeteries is Sharon DeBartelo Carmack's book, Your Guide to Cemetery Research.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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