Messages from the Grave

Cemeteries allow a host of meaning and activities to be grafted upon them. For some, they are a beautiful, bucolic place to memorialize loved ones, for others it is a place to go ghost hunting and catch a scare, others treat it as a place to learn more about the past, and for even mit is a final resting plce. Living human beings place many more activities, meanings, and symbolism onto graveyard and cemeteries...but what about the meaning that gravestones are showing us?

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Why shouldn’t we analyze headstones, cemeteries, and graveyards from the last 300 or so years with a similar care and interest that we show to burial mounds and graveyards of thousands of years past? How we mark our dead is a cultural phenomena that is easy to overlook and even easier not to think about...for who among us wants to plan the design of our tombstone? So springs the study, analysis, and interpretation of cemetery art. These symbols - from crosses to flowers - can tell us even more about the deceased than the written inscription on their stone. This is especially important when so much of the writing has become unreadable or never existed in the first place.

One of my favorite that I had come across was something I had seen several times before, but never quite understood it: a torch turned upside down. Why put such a puzzling image to mark someone’s final resting place? Well, because it symbolizes eternal life. How? Because despite it’s inverted position, the flame continues to burn on in defiance of natural laws. Perhaps people buried under these symbols were visionaries.

Plants and animals also play into the symbolism. For example, roosters and dolphins signify a resurrection. Lambs usually indicate the death of a child whereas owls symbolize wisdom and old age. Oaks highlight supernatural power, violets highlight faithfulness, and wreaths mean victory in death.

Another favorite was the butterfly. Perhaps it is my own bias peeking through but I always think butterflies seem quite cheesy. However, the Greek word for butterfly is “psyche.” If you’ve ever dabbled in Greek philosophy, you might know that psych is also the greek word for soul. To take it even a step further butterflies begin life as caterpillars, cocoon themselves (almost as if in a coffin), and remerge as butterflies. In a strange way, is the grave acting as some sort of cocoon for a grander experience?

Even more interesting, according to 99% Invisible, “Others symbols are tied to orders, institutions and professions, like stumps associated with the Woodmen of the World; squares and compasses with Masonic orders; a mortar and pestle with pharmacists; a palette and brush with artists; anvils with blacksmiths; anchors with sailors; and linked chains with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.” Continuing on tha idea, Eagles often symbolize a military career.

Another element I find interesting are all the different symbols that hands in different positions can mean. Clasped hands are usually linked to faith and prayer. A hand with a pointed finger (either upwards or downwards) indicates mortality, a downward hand can also specifically represent a sudden or unexpected death. A hand holding a heart usually represents charity, whereas a hand holding a book highlights the “embodiment of faith.”  

What other symbols have you noticed are prevalent in cemeteries and graveyards? What do you think they could mean?



This image of the German cemetery in Sighișoara, Romania, taken by Myrabella. It is liscensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.