Gravestones of our Great Grand-uncle and aunt, John & Nancy Huskey, found near the Huskey School, in Hillsboro, Missouri.
Archive for the ‘Cemetery Sleuths’ Category
While attending a family reunion in Missouri, we took an excursion to visit a small family cemetery near Webb City. As we strolled among the gravestones, our host, Aunt Esther, reminisced about the various folks interred there. Pointing out one humble plot, Aunt Esther remarked, “That’s where your Great-grandma Effie and her leg are buried.” She went on to explain, “Effie lost her leg to gangrene, and she had it buried in her plot. Poor dear – she went around for years telling people she already had one foot in the grave.”
Congratulations, Detectives! Your CSI (Cemetery Sleuth Investigation) Team has identified the scene and you’re ready to gather evidence. Here’s a family-friendly method for making gravestone rubbings.
- Tracing Paper or Freezer Paper (works well even if stones are damp or wet) or Acid-free Vellum (for archival-quality rubbings)
- Thick, dark-colored crayons with the labels removed
- Soft bristle brush
- Small spray bottle of water
- Hand towel
- Cardboard tube – for storing paper and finished rubbings
Select a solid gravestone and gently clean dirt and debris from the face using a soft bristle brush, and water if necessary. Have your partner hold the paper over the gravestone. (If using freezer paper, put the shiny side down.) With the flat side of the crayon, rub the entire area using gentle, even strokes. Before removing the paper, step back and check to see if you have completely rubbed all areas. When finished, it is a good idea to note somewhere on the rubbing where it was taken. Roll your paper up carefully so you don’t crease it or smudge the tracing.
Cemetery Sleuth Code of Conduct: A good detective never disturbs the evidence. In other words, “Do no harm.” Always gain permission to do rubbings before you begin. Do not do rubbings on thin or unstable stones. Carelessness can cause damage to gravestones, and for this reason, some cemeteries do not permit gravestone rubbing.
Last week, in Part One of this three-part series on Cemetery Symbolism, we discussed how much information (or evidence) can be gleaned from even a simple gravestone. Today, I offer these common cemetery symbols – and their meanings – to help you decipher your cryptic cemetery gravestones.
Anchors often mark the graves of sailors, but they were also employed as a clever deception by early Christians, used by to guide one another to secret places of worship, or to disguise a cross.
Animals of all kinds are depicted on tombstones, and each has it’s own connotation:
- A Fish indicates faith.
- A Hart (male deer) represents faithfulness or thirsting for God.
- Horses stand for courage or generosity.
- Lion recalls the power of God and guards the tomb.
- Lambs are used to identify the grave of a child, and represents innocence.
- A Squirrel with a nut implies religious meditation or spiritual striving.
Angels symbolize spirituality. Depending upon what they carry, or how they are posed, angels suggest many different ideas.
Birds often represent the flight of the soul to heaven.
- Doves, for Christians, embody the Holy Spirit. On Jewish graves, a dove represents a symbol of peace.
- Eagles (one-headed and two-headed) are often featured on Military and imperial graves as a nationalist symbol. On Native American graves, it can represent a spirit guide.
Bibles may indicate the deceased was a cleric, or a religious lay person.
Books frequently indicate that the deceased was a scholar. Arabic characters signify that the book is the Koran.
A Broken Column can mean an early grief; a life cut short.
Butterflys represent the soul. The three stages of a butterfly’s life – caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly – correspond to the three stage of Christ’s life – birth, death and resurrection. A butterfly can also indicate that the deceased lived only a short time.
A Candle carved onto the gravestone stands for the spirit or the soul.
Chains reflect a medieval belief that a golden chain bound the soul to the body. Severing the chain meant the release of the spirit from the body. The International Order of Odd Fellows also uses a chain as their insignia. If the letter IOOF or FLT (Friendship, Love, Truth) is found inside or near the chain, you can be sure of the association.
A Chariot Wheel with six or twelve spokes is an emblem of the Buddhist faith. The U.S. Veterans Administration uses the Wheel of the Law to mark the graves of Buddhists.
Cherubs mark the graves of children.
The Circle is universally known as the symbol of eternity and never-ending existence. Extremely common on grave sites, it is usually depicted surrounding a cross. Two circles, one above the other, represent earth and sky. Three interconnected circles represent the Holy Trinity.
A Cross symbolizes Christianity.
A Crescent indicates that the deceased was a Muslim in life.
Doors and gates are passages into the afterlife.
Drapery over anything indicates sorrow and mourning.
Flame represents eternity.
Hands, whether clasping, praying, pointing, or blessing, show that the deceased’s relationships involve human beings. Clasping hands often symbolize a marriage or other close bond.
Harps may be found on the graves of musicians, and represent the joy to be found in Heaven.
Hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage. (The Sacred Heart is found only on the graves of Catholics, and represents the suffering of Jesus for our sins.)
An Hour Glass is symbolic of time passing.
Keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, if held in the hands of an angel, the means to enter heaven.
A Lamp stands for knowledge and the immortality of the Spirit.
The Menorah is an emblem of Judaism that predates the Star of David.
A Pitcher is a traditional Jewish (Levite) symbol.
Plants & Trees of numerous species are depicted on headstones, and each has its own meaning. Here are a few of the most popular:
- The Dogwood represents Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
- Roses can mean many things, including love, beauty, hope, unfailing love.
- Rosebuds are normally reserved for a child under the age of 12.
- A partial bloom normally indicates the grave of a teenager.
- A rose in full bloom normally signifies the death of someone in their early to mid-twenties.
- A broken rosebud represents life cut short, usually found on a young person’s grave.
- Grapes and Leaves indicate Christian faith.
- Lily of the Valley means a return of happiness, purity, humility.
- An Oak tree signifies honor, strength and liberty; often seen on military tombs.
- Shamrocks are a sign that the deceased was most likely from Ireland.
Scallops were a symbol of the Crusades, and a traditional symbol of the Puritans.
A Scroll is a symbol of life and time.
A Ship marks the grave of a seafarer.
A Wheat Sheaf indicates that the departed lived to an old age, and had a fruitful life.
A word of caution: every good detective analyzes the evidence carefully, so take these explanations with a grain of salt. While headstone carvings can provide valuable insight into the deceased’s life and death, they should not be taken as incontrovertible evidence. In other words, if your Great-great-grandfather’s tomb is adorned with a rosebud lying beside a pitcher encircled with chains, do not immediately assume that, in life, he was a young Jewish child who belonged to the International Order of Odd Fellows. That said; good luck cracking the code on your family’s cemetery ciphers!
“I don’t know. Let’s collect the evidence and take it in for analysis,” my partner responded.
Back at the house, our team formed a tight circled around the table. “We spent all morning collecting evidence at the scene, Chief. It seems to confirm our suspicions.”
“Show me what you’ve got,” she said, unrolling the tight paper tube. The evidence appeared in relief – a gravestone rubbing showing a dove with an olive branch flying over a split log – and the legend, ‘Dum Tacet Clamet,’ and below; ‘JAMES W. MORGAN, NOV. 4, 1855 – JUNE 1, 1904. GONE FROM OUR HOME, BUT NOT FROM OUR HEARTS. HERE RESTS A WOODMAN OF THE WORLD.’
‘Dum Tacet Clamat’ – it’s Latin for “Though silent, he speaks,” the Chief translated. And so he does…
The modest cemetery monument of James W. Morgan speaks silent volumes about the man who rests there. From it, we learned his name, his age, his likely social standing and fraternal affiliation, and how those who survived him felt toward him: a simple walk through an ancestral cemetery plot yields a legacy.
Cemeteries provide a valuable, tangible link with the past, and a trip there presents a perfect opportunity to form your own family Cemetery Sleuth Investigation (CSI) Team and explore your cryptic family mysteries.
Grave markers reveal not only names and dates, but often offer data that in many cases can be found nowhere else; ethnic origins, occupations and affiliations, beliefs and values, manner of death, names of relatives, even personal traits that survivors held dear. And, as in the case of James W. Morgan, not everything is clearly etched in epitaph – gravestones can hold intricately carved hidden clues. We might have easily dismissed the phrase ‘woodman of the world’ as simply homage to the man’s pioneering spirit, had not the ‘dove & log’ symbol (associated with ‘Woodmen of the World,’ a fraternal society founded in 1890) been carved above.
When gathering ‘evidence’ at the cemetery, make sure to record accurate source information for future researchers. And once back home, remember to follow up on clues: it took less than a minute on a Google search to determine the origins of the symbolism on James Morgan’s gravestone and trace his connection to the Woodmen of the World, as well as reveal the society’s compelling history.
If you would like to investigate to the scene, but aren’t sure where your ancestors are buried, there are a number on online resources for finding information about cemeteries across the globe (start at FamilySearch.org); also, a cemetery directory (such as Cemeteries of the U.S.: A Guide to Contact Information for U.S. Cemeteries and Their Records) can assist you in determining which cemeteries are in the area of your ancestors’ last residence. Once the burial site has been located, the cemetery, if still in existence, can be contacted to schedule a visit and request copies of burial records.
Your efforts will pay off – you and your team will gain valuable information, and might even solve a family mystery or two… in a place where even the silent speak.
Family Photoloom Members: Tombstones are easy to index (i.e. attach to specific names so you can find them later):
- Upload the tombstone picture to your Family Photoloom account.
- Drag-and-drop the individual’s Record Icon onto the picture. (The Record Icon is the little box by their name on the left.)
That’s it – you’re done. The tombstone picture now will appear in the Portrait Column on the right any time that individual is selected, along with any other images you have tagged of that individual.
If you don’t yet have a Family Photoloom account, please sign up for your Free Trial Account today!