Cemetery Art  (1)

Gibson County,


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This article appeared in the Family Chronicle • March/April 2007. A special Thanks
to the Magazine,  Halvor Morrshead  the Editor & Publisher and the Author
Kathleen Shanahan Maca for allowing its use on the Gibson County Web Page.

     FINDING AND DECODING ancient clues has taken on a renewed popularity with interest in the best-selling Da Vinci Code and television shows like Treasure Hunters. Even seasoned genealogists may be surprised to find that some secrets of the dead are right in front of us, if we only know how to read the signs. Since prehistoric times, humans have adorned final resting places with symbols. Petroglyphs carved and painted in caves around the world tell stories of everyday lives. Mayan tomb art portrays terrifying skeletal warnings that echo that culture's fear of death. Elaborate Egyptian pyramids are filled with signs of deities and the promise of rebirth.And just recently, it was announced that a 27,000-year-old burial cave (the oldest of its kind) had been found in France with a series of decorations painted on the walls.

     On this continent, dire Puritan warnings of mortality (mostly in skeleton forms) from two cen-
turies ago slowly evolved into picturesque Victorian expressions of sorrow and hope. Each reflects the sentiments and beliefs of their own era. Though gravesite adornments are nothing new to the human race, our memory for their meanings seems quite short in the tapestry of time. Wander through any old cemetery and you're likely to see designs carved into the headstones: Some crude, some elaborate. Although it is safe to assume the meanings of standard images such as a cross (signifying Christianity and resurrection) or a weeping angel (a symbol of mourning), some are not so easily decrypted. Other than memento mori (symbols of death and mortality such as skulls, crossbones and hourglasses), many gravestones icons can be broken down into basic categories.
Images of Nature Fruits and grains of harvest present a clear parallel for the cycle of life.

• Corn — ripe old age                                                                                                                                                         
• Fruits — eternal plenty                                                                                                                                                               
• Grapes — blood of Christ, eternal life                                                                                                                                                                
• Sheaf of wheat — ripe     for harvest, old age, fruitful life

Flowers and bouquets in general represent sorrow and the fragility of life. Variations have more specific interpretations: Buds for a life cut short, full rose for prime of life or a severed stem for a life cut short.Particular flowers usually follow the Victorian "language of flowers" symbolism.

Bellflower — constancy and gratitude    
Calla lily -majestic beauty and , marriage

Daisy — innocence,  often on a child's grave   
Evening primrose — eternal love, memory, youth, hope and sadness

Garland or wreath — victory in death

Iris — sorrow

Lily, lily of the valley or tulip — innocence, resurrection

Lotus — resurrection, perfect, beauty, spiritual revelation

Morning glory — beginning of life

Pansy — remembrance, meditation

Poppy — eternal sleep

Rose — purity, love

Thistle — Scottish descent or remembrance

• Violet — humility

Animals or related objects, many of which were a part of the deceased,s- everyday life,
represent a variety of beliefs and qualities of character.

• Bee — industrious- ness, Christianity

• Beehive — domestic virtues, education, abundance in heaven

• Butterfly — early death, resurrection

• Caterpillar — life, An engraved lily. metamorphosis

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Dog — implies a good master, worthy of love
• Dolphin — salvation bearer or souls across the water to heaven
• Dove — purity or eternal life
• Dove flying — resurrection
• Fish — faith, life
• Horseshoe — protection against evil
• Lamb — innocence (especially child)
• Lion — courage, strength
• Owl — wisdom, solitude
• Rooster — awakening, resurrection
• Seashell — life everlasting.
Specifically: Conch — wisdom, scallop — baptism
• Squirrel clasping a nut — religious cositemplation
• Spider web —human frailty
• Swallow —motherhood, spirit of children, consolation

     Treestones" are grave markers that actually look like trees. They were most popular between 1880 and 1905, and were adopted as a symbol by the Woodmen of the World organization for use by their members. Forms include: Seedlings (life everlasting), stump (life interrupted), stump with ivy (head of family), and trunk (brevity of life). Other varieties of trees and leaves held their own special meanings.

• Acanthus — a prickly journey from life to death, triumph of eternal life
• Cypress — hope, eternal life (once the tree is cut, its leaves are evergreen)
• Fern — humility, frankness and sincerity
• Ivy — friendship, immortality, attachment, affection
• Laurel — fame or honor
• Mistletoe — immortality
Oak leaves and acorn — maturity, ripe old age
Oak tree — strength or faith and virtue, endurance
Palm branch — victory, rejoicing
Pinecone immortality 
Severed branch — mortality
Weeping willow — lament of loss

     The phases of the day capture sentiments as well.
• Moon — death and rebirth
• Star — divine guidance
• Sun rising — renewed life
• Sun shining — life everlasting
• Sun setting — end of life

Religious Symbolism
The number three usually represents the Holy Trinity of Christian faith (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
This could be in the form of a three —linked chain (which was also used by the Odd Fellows society), three-
leaved shamrock, fleur-de-lis or triangle. Some religious based icons are shared between faiths, and some are
• Alpha & Omega (first and last letters of the Greek alphabet) — the beginning and the end
• Anchor — hope
Anvil — forging of the universe
Arch — victory in death, passage to heaven
Book — a holy book (such as the Bible), or one's accomplishments in life.

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     Two or three books may indicate a Latter-day Saint's burial, and Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants.

• Celtic cross — faith, eternity
• Clouds — awakening to resurrection
• Crown — glory of life after death, victory, leadership, distinction; symbol of Christ's crown
• Cross with crown — sovereignty of the Lord
• Cup or chalice — the sacraments
• Flame — everlasting life
• Heart, flaming — religious fervor
• Heart pierced by the sword — Virgin Mary, Christ, repentance
• Heart wrapped in thorns —promise of  heavenly assistance
• Harp — praise to the Maker, hope
• Heart — love, love of God
• IHS — eternity, Christian In His Service"
Menorah divine wisdom; usually on tomb of a "righteous" woman
• Obelisk — rebirth, connection between heaven and earth
• Olive branch —peace, forgiveness
• Open gates — soul entering heaven
• Pyramid — resurrection enlightenment
• Rock — permanence, stability Lord
• Rope circle — eternity
• Snake with tail in mouth — everlasting life in heaven
• Star of David — unity, transformation
• Steps (three-tiered) — faith, hope and charity

Fraternal/Professional Icons
Probably the most common emblems on gravestones in North America refer to the fraternal
organizations of the Masons and the Woodmen of the World. Each has numerous variations, with
specific meanings. Other associations and professions also have representative symbols.

Anchors/ships — hope or seafaring profession
Cannon — military service
Cog wheel — Rotary International
' Compass and set square —Freemasons, judgment
' Crescent — inverted, with saber and Egyptian head Shriners
Crossed axes with MWA  Modern Woodmen of America
Crossed swords — high-ranking military person, or life lost in battle
• Double eagle with "32" — Scottish Rite (32nd degree)
Dove holding chain, with inside crescent moon — Daughters of Rebekah
• Eagle — courage, faith, military
• Flag — military, patriotism
• Helmet — military service, strength
• Stars and Stripes around eagle — vigilance, liberty

Then there are the images that fall into their own categories, such as hands. Clasped hands (like a
handshake) appear regularly on mid-19 century stones. But lookclosely at the sleeves. If they
appear to be the same, the image refers to the goodbyes said at death, and devotion to the
departed. If one is feminine and one masculine, it means that the person was married, and will
either see their mate again in heaven or is joining them there. It's all in the details.
     Pointing may not be polite, but it can be revealing. A single finger pointing up, of course,;
refers to the journey to heaven. If two fingers are pointing skyward, it suggests that the deceased
was a member of the clergy. Fingers pointing down call the observer to reflect upon their earthly
existence. Other fingers may be breaking a link in a chain, signifying the end of a life.
Numerous other signs lie in the markers of graveyards, each with their own secrets. They offer
worthwhile clues to the sometimes mysterious puzzles of our ancestors' lives. So the next time you
walk through a ceme tery, look beyond the names and dates. The answers you are searching for
may already be set in stone.

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Acronyms that may be found on Tombstones

AOF = American Order of Foresters
BPOE = Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks
DAC = Daughters of American Colonists
DAN = Daughters of the Nile (Womens Aux of the Shriners)
DAR   (NSDAR) = Daughters of the American Revolution
DUV = Daughters of Union Vetserans of the Civil War
F & Am or FAM = Free and Accepted Masons
F of A = Foresters of America
FAA = Free and Accepted Americans
FCB = Knights of pythias (Frendship, Charity, Benevolence)
FOE = Fraternal Order of Eagles
FOF = Fraternal of Firefighters
FOP = Fraternal of Police
GAR = Grand Army of the Republic
IOF = Independent Order of Foresters
IKOP = Independent Order of Knights of Pythais
IOOF = Independent Order of Odd Fellows
KC or K of C = Knights of Columbus
LGAR = Ladies of thr Grand Army of the Republic
MWA = Modern Woodsmen of America
Nsdra = National Society Daughters of  American Revolution
NIWA = National Indian War Veterans
OES = Order of Eastern Star
ORM = Order of Red Men
POSA = Patriotic Order of the Sons of Amaerica
RAM = Royal Arch Masons
SCV = Sons of Confederate Veterans
SUVCW = Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
SV = Sons of Veterans
UCV = United Confederate Veterans
UDC = United daughters of the Confederacy
USWV = United spanish War Veterans
VFW = Veterans of Foreign ward
WOW = Woodsmen of the World