Nineteenth Century Cemetery Symbolism
By Nancy A. Ross-Stallings, August 7, 2014
English, 17th Century Death’s
During the late eighteenth century, in Great Britain and the United States, a movement swept across these countries that extended into the early twentieth century. This was called the Beautification of Death Movement, and it was an alteration in the way death was regarded, in a religious and social way. During Colonial Times, death was feared, mortality rates were high, and the symbolism that is found on surviving headstones of the time period includes skulls, crossed bones, “death heads (stylized skulls with wings on either side of the skull)”, and skeletons. Most of the stones used at the time as grave markers were dark – brown, black and charcoal grey (Figure 1). Graveyards (or burying grounds as they were commonly called) were grim, crowded, and in Europe, many graves were re-used a number of times.
However, in France, England and in the new United States, growing numbers of cemeteries were developed which were a departure from the old fashioned, crowded and depressing burying grounds. The first of these planned cemeteries in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery, established in Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1831. The cemetery was distinctive in that it was not a family burying ground, and it was not a church graveyard. The cemetery was established on an old farm, and was referred to as a “cemetery” which is taken from a Greek word meaning “a sleeping place.” The name and layout of this cemetery departed from the harsh appearance of a “graveyard.”The cemetery was 174 acres in size, and was also renowned as an arboretum. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society helped with the landscaping in the cemetery. One of the founders of the cemetery was Dr. Jacob Bigelow, an M.D. who was concerned about the threat of disease in old church burying grounds. The design of Mount Auburn was inspired by Per’e Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and Abney Park in London. Mount Auburn was seen as the beginning of the American parks and gardens movement. By the late 1840s, similar cemeteries began dotting the landscapes in such cities as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Syracuse, and Baltimore.
The principal characteristics of these cemeteries are that they were laid out as what we would consider today as a park, with curved roads, landscaping, possibly a pond, and a wide variety of unique trees, shrubs, flowers and plantings. Some have non-denominational chapels, beautiful gates, benches, gazebos, and statuary. The headstones are generally made of light colored marble, limestone, and other white or pale stones. By the beginnings of the nineteenth century, stone masonry was coming into its own as a developed trade, with specialists who could carve intricate headstones, and the advent of trains enabled the delivery of headstone blanks and completed headstones to more remote areas. Marble headstones and blanks were imported from Europe, but also marble quarries in the United States were developed, and headstone blanks also were produced domestically.
Concurrently, the Victorian Period experienced a resurgence in the “’Language of Flowers” with dictionaries published. Nosegays and other floral arrangements were traded among couples as well as friends and relatives, with specific meanings attributed to flowers, fruits, and other foliage. Coupled with this was the further development of symbols, predominately from Classical, Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Biblical sources that were incorporated into popular culture, including the Beautification of Death Movement. These included angels, certain animals, objects such as chains, anchors, clocks, hourglasses, obelisks, harps, gates, trees, books, lamps, and an abundance of other items. Human elements such as hands, the heart, a pointed finger, and the eye were also used (Figures 2, 3, 4). Also incorporated were symbols associated with a person’s life, such as memberships in the Masons, the Woodsmen of the World, International Order of Oddfellows, Eastern Star, and religious groups. Some of these associations were abbreviated with commonly recognized letters. In cemeteries with Catholic interments, headstones often had letters associated with religious phrases such as “Manus Dei (the hand of God)” or “Hic Sepultis, or H.S. (here lies buried)”. For Jewish interments, Hebrew words were often placed on the headstone.
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Broken chain, symbolizing the end of earthly existence.
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Life or time, with top showing the future, and below the inscription showing the past.
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The obelisk, symbolizing regeneration, eternal life, with drapery symbolizing the act of mourning.
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This period was also famous for the development of elaborate, sentimental epitaphs; this word comes from Greek, and means “a funeral oration.” Epitaphs became so popular that books were published with suggested epitaphs for loved ones’ gravestones. One example from an 1873 book “Hill’s Manual” states:
“This lovely bud, so young, so fair, Called hence by early doom, Just came to show how sweet a flower, In Paradise would bloom.”
Other common epitaphs would soften the blow of death; for example variations such as “Only sleeping” were employed. Another popular epitaph of the times was reference to the deceased going on to a higher reward, or to a place where pain and troubles do not exist.
Of course, many families came up with unique epitaphs that described the deceased, their accomplishments, and sometimes the tragedy of their deaths. While epitaphs are not so commonly used on modern headstones, they continue to appear. One modern example, a perfect inscription for Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone, Woody Woodpecker, and many other cartoon characters, stated “That’s All Folks!” “Man of 1000 Voices, Beloved Husband and Father.” He passed away in 1989 and is interred in Hollywood, California.
In Harrodsburg, the Springhill Cemetery was started in 1860, after the community cemetery immediately southeast of the downtown area began to fill up by the 1850s. Springhill Cemetery is an excellent example of a cemetery that was laid out at its inception as a community cemetery with a park-like setting, and it exhibits many of the attributes of a cemetery inspired by the Beautification of Death Movement. The varieties of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in this cemetery is remarkable, and the cemetery also features outstanding examples of Victorian and Edwardian Period monuments with decorative elements bearing the iconographies associated with Victorian symbolism. Some of the interments at this cemetery are dated earlier than 1860, because family members elected to remove their loved ones from the older cemetery and reinter them at Springhill. Following the trend, many rural cemeteries, both family and community cemeteries, as well as cemeteries associated with churches, show the influences of the Beautification of Death Movement as people continued to be interred over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In many cemeteries with Protestant Christian interments, the deceased are laid out in rows, with the grave in front of a headstone that faces the east. The philosophy was that when the Second Coming occurred, the deceased could rise up and walk toward the Lord.
Examples of the symbolism seen at Springhill Cemetery include obelisks. The obelisk headstones are a product of the Egyptian Revival in architecture that occurred in the nineteenth century. It symbolizes a ray of sunlight in Egyptian cosmology, but Victorians soon interpreted it as symbolic of death and pointing to heaven. Obelisks also varied in design, with crosses, and urns topping them in some cases, as well as draperies, symbolizing the drapes over a funeral bier (Figure 4).
A stylized weeping willow tree carved in bas relief is a very popular motif for headstones of this period. The willow was a symbol of weeping and sadness for the Victorians. In Christian symbolism, it is associated with the gospel of Christ because the tree will flourish and remain whole no matter how many branches are cut off
The depiction of roses in bas relief sculpture on the headstone conveys sorrow and the brevity of earthly existence. Roses in Victorian cemeteries frequently adorn the gravestones of women. For the deceased who died young, including children, roses or other flowers are frequently depicted with broken stems, symbolizing a life cut short.
Other foliage has specific meanings and these examples are one of many: lilies are associated with motherhood, and an Easter Lily with resurrection, while daisies symbolize innocence or childhood and young people in general. Cornucopias symbolize the bounty of God and heaven. Acorns symbolize latent greatness or strength and the power of spiritual growth. Shocks of wheat symbolize the end of a fruitful life, and eternal life in Heaven. When shown with a sickle, it is symbolic of the Divine Harvest. A wreath of flowers or leaves symbolizes victory in death. If it is with a Latin cross, it means victory of the Redemption. Sometimes the wreath is shown draped over an obelisk (Figure 4), urn or the top of a gravestone, or an angel carries it. It is usually associated with an adult. If the flowers or leaves are a specific species, it assumes the meaning of that species; for example, if of ivy, it means conviviality, friendship, and a symbol of faithfulness and eternal immortality.
Animals are also associated with gravestones. A few examples: A snake with its tail in its mouth symbolizes eternity, a Circle. A dove with an olive twig in its beak means that it is after the troubles of death, and the idea of peace in the future life. On the grave of a young woman, a dove may mean purity and modesty. A lamb is the most popular motif for the grave of a baby or small child, symbolizing innocence, and the soul of the deceased. If on the grave of an adult, it means the deceased was a devout Christian. Generally the lamb is reclining, and often the head is turned to face the viewer of the headstone. A dog represents watchfulness and fidelity; in some cases, it is a portrait of a favorite dog of the deceased.
One of the most popular motifs of the time period is the use of hands as headstone symbols. A bas relief of a wrist and hand, male or female, depending on the sex of the deceased, is frequently depicted in a long sleeved garment. The index finger is generally pointing upward, to heaven, showing where the deceased has gone. Clasped hands of the same sex mean the hope of being together again. It may be accompanied by an epitaph ”Till we meet again.” If the hands are those of a man and a woman, it symbolizes the union of marriage. The cuffs give the sex of the represented hand: a straight shirt cuff is male, sometimes with a button or cufflink, while a flared or ruffled cuff is female. A male hand with a broken blossom symbolizes God claiming a flower for His garden in heaven. If the hand is holding a broken link in a chain, it has the same meaning.
Mourning figures on large headstones and monuments can be smaller figures or life size or larger. The use of a woman bent in grief goes back to Greek reliefs from the fourth and fifth century B.C. The figures are sometimes, but rarely, male. It symbolizes the grief or prayers of the surviving family, and may be depicted sitting, standing, kneeling or weeping. It may be clinging to a cross, symbolizing the song “Rock of Ages.” These statues may have been commissioned but were also available in dozens of styles from Italy, and as stock items from dealers.
Victorians believed that most angels were women, and usually portrayed female angels. On a gravesite, what the angel is depicted as doing is the most important part of the symbol, since they are said to be messengers or attendants of God. An angel holding a scroll or banner was taking an inventory of the person’s life. An angel holding a trumpet announced Judgment Day. An angel with its right hand extended, palm open showed guardianship of a human being, while both hands extended was an invitation. A kneeling angel looking up, with clasped hands was conducting intercession on behalf of the deceased, while a kneeling angel with clasped hands and looking down was in prayer.
While this article cannot begin to do justice to the vast array of symbolism in a nineteenth century cemetery, interested readers are urged to learn more about this fascinating window into the beliefs of their nineteenth and early twentieth century ancestors. Suggested sources are presented below. Books out of print can be found at used book dealers, or ordered through interlibrary loan. The sources below are the tip of the ice berg for this fascinating topic and are personal favorites of mine. Once people learn the meanings of the headstones and statuary in these beautiful cemeteries, visiting them will be a fun and absorbing hobby.
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Brown, John Gary 1994. Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS. The photos are beautiful, and the narrative is fun to read.
Jordan, Terry 1982. Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy. University of Texas Press, Austin. This is not just about Texas! Jordan introduces the Southern Folk Cemetery, their layout and grave markers, elements of which are in Kentucky, and a variant of the Beautification of Death Movement. He also discusses Catholic cemeteries, and Hispanic Cemeteries. This book is one of the best introductions to nineteenth cemeteries in the South I have ever seen.
Hacker, Debi 2001. Iconography of Death: Common Symbolism of Late 18th Through Early 20th Century Tombstones in the Southeastern United States. Chicora Foundation, Inc., Columbia, SC. You can tuck this into a purse or bag and visit your favorite cemetery!
Kahlert, John M. 1981 Pioneer Cemeteries: Door County, Wisconsin. Meadow Lane Publishers, Bailey’s Harbor, WI. The black and white photos of grave stones in this book are stunning and very interesting.
Keister, Douglas 2004. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Gibbs Smith, Publisher. Layton, UT. Hard bound, fits in a jacket pocket, color photos and very comprehensive. He has every symbol I have ever seen in a cemetery in this compact, pretty little book! Enjoy!
Laderman, Gary 1996. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT. Traces the changes over time in the nineteenth century. A good foundation toward understanding the Beautification of Death Movement, and its effect on American culture.
Little, M. Ruth 1998. Sticks & Stones: Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. A wonderful history of cemeteries in this state, with insights on stonemasons who carved these stones, as well as beautiful photos of the cemeteries and headstones. The first chapters cover the “old graveyards,” grim as they were.
Meyer, Richard E., Editor 1992. Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Utah State University Press, Logan, UT. Numerous authors have chapters in this volume. Chapters include loggers graves, childrens’ headstones, African-Americans, New Orleans cemetery architecture, epitaphs and personality, the Upland South Folk Cemetery, tourist uses of cemeteries in the nineteenth century, Navajo, Zuni and Morman cemeteries, among other topics.