Their Stories Carved In Stone

“What did you do over summer vacation?”

Other kids in my middle school class likely answered that question with such things as going on a family vacation to Florida, maybe 4-H Camp or just hanging out with friends around a swimming pool. I spent most of one particular summer in the Berkshire Evergreen Cemetery, voluntarily documenting and mapping the headstones.

I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries and never found them creepy to walk in, day or night. To me they are places to get away from it all, to relax, to think, to reflect on all my dreams for life. Being surrounded by death like that makes you appreciate living.  Thanks to the Internet I’ve discovered I’m not so alone in these feelings, but as a kid very few of my friends could understand my fascination and fewer still would join me in my various cemetery adventures.

One youthful journey that I made with my father reigns over them all. We were visiting family graves in Speedsville at the time. I must have been eleven or twelve years old. While Dad tended to watering flowers and plants that had been brought earlier that year, I wandered around and read the tombstones. One stone quickly got my overly active imagination going. It was one of the earlier stones in the graveyard and at the top was carved a hand with a finger pointing downward. From the finger dangled three chain links, one of them broken. I was instantly convinced that finger pointing down could only mean one thing, this poor sinner was bound for Hell.  When I showed Dad the stone, he didn’t know what it could possibly mean either. The mystery would remain with me for almost thirty more years.

handdowncndr

I started taking pictures in cemeteries in my early twenties. Whole weekends would be devoted to cemetery hunting and grave walking.  I occasionally found others to join me, but most of the time this was a solitary practice, just me and my camera. My images eventually started to focus on the intricate carvings on the headstones: the different types of flowers, trees, animals, birds and a variety of archaic symbols, including many, many headstones with hands in various poses on them. I remembered the stone I’d seen with my father all those years ago and knew there had to be a reason and meaning behind all these things.

My serious research soon began.

In North America the earliest markers erected were generally unrefined and simple. The inscriptions, if indeed they bore an inscription at all originally, have in many instances eroded away or crumbled off. These stones are generally from what is called the Federalist Period, 1789-1850, and sometimes offer us little information. But even the crudest markers can tell us a great deal about the history of the region during this time.

One of the most popular symbols displayed prior to 1850 is the funerary urn. These appear with great regularity on 19th century gravestones in all settled areas of the United States and Canada. The urn was a well-understood symbol of death and the mortality of the body.  Quite often the urn was accompanied by the Tree of Life (not to be confused with the Weeping Willow symbol that will be explained later). This provided a sacred message for the living; although the individual had perished, their remains would provide the seed for new life. When this same tree appears to be growing out of the urn it expresses the Western religious understanding of the hope of everlasting life.

urnwill1oldath

Early American example of funeral urn with Tree of Life sprouting from the top. Athens, PA.

The urn and Tree of Life made perfect sense to me, but when I saw my first tree-stump-shaped grave marker, I was baffled. Why would anyone have a headstone shaped like a tree stump?

stumpspncr

Woodmen of the World grave marker.

I discovered there was a fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World and to have the graves easily identifiable by their brothers, the headstone would be carved into the shape of a tree stump. One tree symbol led to another. The Weeping Willow mentioned earlier was a common symbol found in Great Britain during the neoclassical period (1660-1740) and was intended solely to represent perpetual mourning and grief. You will find countless depictions of the willow on grave markers from the nineteenth-century in our area as well. Oak leaves and acorns on tombs stood for power and longevity. Laurel branches often mark the graves of those who have served their countries with great distinction.

roses2cndrrd

Roses in full bloom symbolizing a full life. – Candor, NY

Then came the flowers: roses, poppies, lilies, and sunflowers just to name a few. Not only did each flower have a meaning, but the flowers arrangement and stage of life could tell the informed observer about the person whose remains lay beneath. This is most visible in the rose. A rose bud will most likely mark the grave of a child or young, unmarried woman, while roses in full bloom are carved on the stones of those who have led long, productive lives. A wreath of roses, or wreaths of any kind, speaks of eternity. Anything round, such as wreaths and orbs, have long been symbolic of things that are meant to last forever, just as the familiar circle, or band, of gold many of us wear for a wedding band does.

In hot pursuit came the animals one finds carved on graves. The two most popular are the lamb and the dove. A lamb will mark almost exclusively the grave of an infant or a very young child. Doves can be found in various postures from sitting upright, to flying upward or downward to lying flat on their back, feet curled up in the typical image of a dead bird. As with flowers, each of the dove’s positions has a different meaning. Sitting upright means the soul of the deceased is believed to be at rest. The bird flying upward represents the soul’s transcendence into Heaven, downward it symbolizes the spirit of Christ coming down to take the soul. If the bird is flat on its back, chances are the life of the deceased was suddenly cut short.

wreathdovebks

Holy Spirit descending in the form of a Dove and a wreath of flowers all in full bloom. – Berkshire,NY

The Masons, along with countless other fraternal and sorority organizations, use a variety of symbols to identify the final resting places of their members. Masons view the beehive as a symbol of industry. A beehive may also mark the grave of a Mormon. If you find a stone carved with an eagle and the number thirty-two, this marks the grave of a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason. The most common of all Masonic symbols are the compass with the square along with the obelisk-shaped headstone itself. The Ancient Order of Odd Fellows often uses a three-linked chain where one of the links is snapped open, symbolizing the severance of the dead from the living.

Wait. What? A three-linked chain with one link broken? Where had I seen that before? The Speedsville cemetery with my dad, of course!  Did that mean the deceased really wasn’t bound for Hell as I’d first imagined? I searched further and found a reference to hands, and more importantly, hands with fingers pointing in various directions. I was about to have my answer.

You’ll find a lot of hands on graves. Some hands are clearly folded in prayer. Other times, the hand of one person may be seen holding the hand of another. In the case of two different hands behind held together, look very carefully. A hand that reaches down and may appear a bit larger than the one below symbolizes the Hand of God fetching up the soul of the deceased. Sometimes the cuff of a man’s shirt or a lady’s blouse has been added and this could represent the hands of a husband and wife held together for all eternity. Hands with the fingers pointing upward are meant to guide the soul in the direction of heaven. Finally, the hand with a finger pointing downward means that those on Earth have been called to witness the mortality of humanity, that the deceased has been chosen by God. My dearly departed friend in Speedsville wasn’t Hell bound after all. He was merely a member of the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows whose family had left behind a symbolic reminder of the mortality of us all. That wasn’t even close to the sinister imaginings I’d harbored all those years.

As you can see, a vast number of iconographic symbols and themes grace the headstones of cemeteries. Only a very few have been mentioned here. Gravestones are, in many aspects, works of art. Some are masterpieces, while others are representative of the crude and harsh pioneer environment our own ancestors endured.

Every grave marker has a symbolic message all its own to share, a voice waiting to be heard. These stones have stories to tell, but it takes a willing and observant person to sit down and read that message and understand the story left so lovingly behind by the family who placed it there.

What did you do over your summer?

I walked through and took pictures of what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and fascinating stone sculpture gardens ever created by man and read the stories carved in the stones of our local cemeteries.

This article first appeared 6 Oct. 2010 in the Tioga County Courier, Owego, NY.

All photos courtesy of the author.

 

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Ah, that first English assignment when returning to school after the summer off. How I always looked forward to that moment. Yes, I was a strange child, but I think that was established some time ago and I have since grown up to be a bit left-of-center adult. Now that school is out for the kiddies, my mind drifts back to those care-free days and those two months of pretty much doing as I pleased. Oh, to be that kid again.

When I realized that the “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” writing assignment was pretty much an annual event for English teachers, I began to consider what odd thing I could do to make my assignment stand out from the rest of the Muggle Crowd. (Of course, we didn’t have Muggles back then as these were the pre-Harry Potter days, but you get the idea.) God forbid I should do something entirely normal. I can’t remember all of those summers, but there is one that sticks out in my mind the most. I spent at least three weeks of one particular summer vacation in the nearby cemetery. Well, not full time there, but during the days. I probably would have spent the nights, but I’m sure my parents (as well as the authorities) would have frowned on such a thing.

I’ve never had a fear of cemeteries like so many people do. No idea why. They just aren’t in the least bit scary to me day or night. I’ve always enjoyed wandering among headstones taking pictures and enjoying the peace and restful quiet they offer. On this particular summer, however, I was on a mission.

At least three days a week for nearly a month, I’d load up my Army green backpack with lunch, my little transistor radio, lined paper, graph paper, a supply of pencils and a sharpener, a pen, and my camera in the morning. I’d toss it over my back and hop onto my bike for the mile and a half ride to Berkshire Evergreen Cemetery. Once there, I’d set to work.

I worked my way north to south, west to east, getting deeper and deeper into the cemetery. One by one my graph paper filled with tiny black squares, each marked with its own unique number. Each one set in a sub-divided section of the grounds created by the various roadways throughout. On my lined paper I started with Section 1. Grave #1. And wrote down everything on the headstone associated with that space. My goal was to document and map every headstone in the place. That, to me, was summertime fun!

I couldn’t have been happier or prouder of my time spent there. This was a huge undertaking even for an adult and here I was probably about 12-13 years old doing it all on my own for the mere amusement of the thing. I did eventually complete the project and boy did I have something unusual to write about come September and the inevitable English essay.

Unfortunately, this tale does not have the ending I wish it did. For years I kept that project alive. I’d add black squares and information as new graves were created. But… now, almost forty years later, I have NO idea whatsoever what happened to the folder I had it all in. That really could have been a useful tool for future genealogists! I can’t imagine throwing it out. I can’t imagine either of my parents throwing it out had they come across it over the years. I mean, sheesh, my dad once presented me with a small composition notebook he’d found from my elementary school days full of little stories I’d written as writing assignments!

The years have gone by and I no longer have to write “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essays for English class, but I kind of wish I did. Vacations don’t last for two months anymore and they usually don’t take place in the summer. I’m old and try to escape the New York winters for a couple weeks now.

That isn’t to say that I still don’t enjoy spending some of my summer days wandering through nearby cemeteries taking pictures and enjoying the peace and quiet that being surrounded by the dead brings me. Old habits die hard and I’d rather this one not pass away until I do.

So.. what are your plans for summer vacation?

Featured Image: Berkshire Evergreen Cemetery, Berkshire, NY. Courtesy of the author.

Their Stories Carved In Stone

This article appeared in the Tioga County Courier, Owego, New York in October 2010. It seemed an appropriate time to share it elsewhere. Hope you enjoy.

“What did you do over summer vacation?”

Other kids in my middle school class likely answered that question with such things as going on a family vacation to Florida, maybe 4-H Camp or just hanging out with friends around a swimming pool. I spent most of one particular summer in the Berkshire Evergreen Cemetery, voluntarily documenting and mapping the headstones.

I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries and never found them creepy to walk in, day or night. To me they are places to get away from it all, to relax, to think, to reflect on all my dreams for life. Being surrounded by death like that makes you appreciate living. Thanks to the Internet I’ve discovered I’m not so alone in these feelings, but as a kid very few of my friends could understand my fascination and fewer still would join me in my various cemetery adventures.

One youthful journey that I made with my father reigns over them all. We were visiting family graves in Speedsville at the time. I must have been eleven or twelve years old. While Dad tended to watering flowers and plants that had been brought earlier that year, I wandered around and read the tombstones. One stone quickly got my overly active imagination going. It was one of the earlier stones in the graveyard and at the top was carved a hand with a finger pointing downward. From the finger dangled three chain links, one of them broken. I was instantly convinced that finger pointing down could only mean one thing, this poor sinner was bound for Hell. When I showed Dad the stone, he didn’t know what it could possibly mean either. The mystery would remain with me for almost thirty more years.

I started taking pictures in cemeteries in my early twenties. Whole weekends would be devoted to cemetery hunting and grave walking. I occasionally found others to join me, but most of the time this was a solitary practice, just me and my camera. My images eventually started to focus on the intricate carvings on the headstones: the different types of flowers, trees, animals, birds and a variety of archaic symbols, including many, many headstones with hands in various poses on them. I remembered the stone I’d seen with my father all those years ago and knew there had to be a reason and meaning behind all these things.

My serious research soon began.

In North America the earliest markers erected were generally unrefined and simple. The inscriptions, if indeed they bore an inscription at all originally, have in many instances eroded away or crumbled off. These stones are generally from what is called the Federalist Period, 1789-1850, and sometimes offer us little information. But even the crudest markers can tell us a great deal about the history of the region during this time.

One of the most popular symbols displayed prior to 1850 is the funerary urn. These appear with great regularity on 19th century gravestones in all settled areas of the United States and Canada. The urn was a well-understood symbol of death and the mortality of the body. Quite often the urn was accompanied by the Tree of Life (not to be confused with the Weeping Willow symbol that will be explained later). This provided a sacred message for the living; although the individual had perished, their remains would provide the seed for new life. When this same tree appears to be growing out of the urn it expresses the Western religious understanding of the hope of everlasting life.

The urn and Tree of Life made perfect sense to me, but when I saw my first tree-stump-shaped grave marker, I was baffled. Why would anyone have a headstone shaped like a tree stump?

I discovered there was a fraternal organization called Woodmen of the World and to have the graves easily identifiable by their brothers, the headstone would be carved into the shape of a tree stump. One tree symbol led to another. The Weeping Willow mentioned earlier was a common symbol found in Great Britain during the neoclassical period (1660-1740) and was intended solely to represent perpetual mourning and grief. You will find countless depictions of the willow on grave markers from the nineteenth-century in our area as well. Oak leaves and acorns on tombs stood for power and longevity. Laurel branches often mark the graves of those who have served their countries with great distinction.

Then came the flowers: roses, poppies, lilies, and sunflowers just to name a few. Not only did each flower have a meaning, but the flowers arrangement and stage of life could tell the informed observer about the person whose remains lay beneath. This is most visible in the rose. A rose bud will most likely mark the grave of a child or young, unmarried woman, while roses in full bloom are carved on the stones of those who have led long, productive lives. A wreath of roses, or wreaths of any kind, speaks of eternity. Anything round, such as wreaths and orbs, have long been symbolic of things that are meant to last forever, just as the familiar circle, or band, of gold many of us wear for a wedding band does.

In hot pursuit came the animals one finds carved on graves. The two most popular are the lamb and the dove. A lamb will mark almost exclusively the grave of an infant or a very young child. Doves can be found in various postures from sitting upright, to flying upward or downward to lying flat on their back, feet curled up in the typical image of a dead bird. As with flowers, each of the dove’s positions has a different meaning. Sitting upright means the soul of the deceased is believed to be at rest. The bird flying upward represents the soul’s transcendence into Heaven, downward it symbolizes the spirit of Christ coming down to take the soul. If the bird is flat on its back, chances are the life of the deceased was suddenly cut short.

The Masons, along with countless other fraternal and sorority organizations, use a variety of symbols to identify the final resting places of their members. Masons view the beehive as a symbol of industry. A beehive may also mark the grave of a Mormon. If you find a stone carved with an eagle and the number thirty-two, this marks the grave of a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason. The most common of all Masonic symbols are the compass with the square along with the obelisk-shaped headstone itself. The Ancient Order of Odd Fellows often uses a three-linked chain where one of the links is snapped open, symbolizing the severance of the dead from the living.

Wait. What? A three-linked chain with one link broken? Where had I seen that before? The Speedsville cemetery with my dad, of course! Did that mean the deceased really wasn’t bound for Hell as I’d first imagined? I searched further and found a reference to hands, and more importantly, hands with fingers pointing in various directions. I was about to have my answer.

You’ll find a lot of hands on graves. Some hands are clearly folded in prayer. Other times, the hand of one person may be seen holding the hand of another. In the case of two different hands behind held together, look very carefully. A hand that reaches down and may appear a bit larger than the one below symbolizes the Hand of God fetching up the soul of the deceased. Sometimes the cuff of a man’s shirt or a lady’s blouse has been added and this could represent the hands of a husband and wife held together for all eternity. Hands with the fingers pointing upward are meant to guide the soul in the direction of heaven. Finally, the hand with a finger pointing downward means that those on Earth have been called to witness the mortality of humanity, that the deceased has been chosen by God. My dearly departed friend in Speedsville wasn’t Hell bound after all. He was merely a member of the Ancient Order of Odd Fellows whose family had left behind a symbolic reminder of the mortality of us all. That wasn’t even close to the sinister imaginings I’d harbored all those years.

As you can see, a vast number of iconographic symbols and themes grace the headstones of cemeteries. Only a very few have been mentioned here. Gravestones are, in many aspects, works of art. Some are masterpieces, while others are representative of the crude and harsh pioneer environment our own ancestors endured.

Every grave marker has a symbolic message all its own to share, a voice waiting to be heard. These stones have stories to tell, but it takes a willing and observant person to sit down and read that message and understand the story left so lovingly behind by the family who placed it there.

What did you do over your summer?

I walked through and took pictures of what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and fascinating stone sculpture gardens ever created by man and read the stories carved in the stones of our local cemeteries.

Honoring The Dead

I won’t be visiting any cemeteries today despite it being Memorial Day.  I understand it’s a the symbolic thing to do. I understand the comfort that can be gained by sitting at a graveside and talking to whomever is buried there. I know what it is to be there and sob and remember and miss someone so deeply you wonder how you’ve made it this far without them. I’ve nothing against those that chose to place the flowers and mementos. I’ve done it myself countless time and probably will do it again. I even think it’s an important thing to do as part of the whole mourning process.

What I don’t agree with is only doing this once a year or doing it out of some sort of family obligation and peer pressure. Doing it for those reasons, as far as I’m concerned, has no meaning. Furthermore, I have my doubts about all the Spirits getting together to show up at these cemeteries to check out the superficial trinkets so many chose to leave for them. “It’s a nice gesture,” you might say. “It shows I care about and remember that person.” Well, so does a pictures on a wall or keeping something special that same person gave you while alive. So does re-telling the stories those that have left prior have told you and adding the stories of your time with them. Share who that person was while they were living. Make your memories the memories of another.

Someone once told me that the only Spirit that ever dies is the one that is forgotten. I keep the Spirits of my ancestors and friends alive by honoring them in my heart, by putting them into my stories, by sharing and remembering. 

So, no, you won’t see me at any cemeteries today placing flowers on graves. I’ll go another day with my camera. I’ll take my time and wander around, remembering the times I spent in such places with my grandmothers, my father, my friends and my children. Maybe someone else will be with me and in that case, I’ll share with them why I love these places so much. I’ll hope that in doing so my stories will be passed down and honored after I am dead and gone.