When doing genealogy research, visiting a cemetery should be included in your research plan, if at all possible. Take a few extra minutes to walk through the cemetery and look at the design and architecture of the tombstones. They range from plain to very elaborate stones. The older the stone, the more likely it will have some sort of decoration carved into it.
Different parts of the country and historically different time periods show how symbols changed. The Puritans viewed death as a part of their daily lives. Harriette Merrifield Forbes, author of "Gravestones of Early New England, and the Men Who Made them, 1653-1800," says that the winged death head (a skull with wings or a skull and cross bones) on the graves of New England colonists was one of the earliest cemetery art forms in America.
Cemetery art and symbolism are very interesting. Each of those symbols has a special meaning. Here are a few of the most popular symbols.
The acorn stands for prosperity, strength and independence. The anchor symbolizes hope or the Navy military service. Angels are a symbol of grief and a link to heaven. They are God’s messengers and guardians, thus, dropping flowers usually signify grief and mourning, and pointing to heaven may signify rejoicing.
Arches and gates symbolize passage into the next life; a book is a symbol of the Bible or the book of life; a broken chain, a missing link in the family; a candle, life. The broken column or a tree stump are a symbol of a life cut off early or unexpectedly, and the whole column stands for a life fully lived. The dove is a symbol of purity, innocence, or flight of the soul. It is often on a child’s grave. The Calla Lily flower represents beauty, and a clock or hourglass symbolizes the passage of time.
The curtain symbolizes the passage from this life to another. A draped urn is a Greek symbol of mourning, and it symbolizes the separation between the living and dead and the drape protects the soul. The fern is a symbol of sincerity and humility. A finger pointed upward symbolizes the soul has gone to heaven; two fingers pointing upward indicates the deceased was a member of the clergy; and the finger pointing down symbolizes God reaching down for the soul. The Grim Reaper used in the 18th Century was meant to instill the fear of God in those left behind. The symbol of a hand may be found on the stone of a married person indicating being left behind. Look closely at the clothing on the arm to learn if the person was male or female.
A heart symbolizes love. The lamb indicates purity, gentleness, innocence and usually means the death of a child. The lion symbolizes the power of God and protects the grave from evil spirits. A Star of David indicates the person was of Jewish faith.
There are also many emblems that indicate membership in an organization; such as, the tree stump for the The Modern Woodmen of America or Woodmen of the World, the Beehive for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Masonic emblem for a Mason, and the five-pointed star for an Eastern Star. In addition, there are emblems that indicate membership in professional organizations, such as the horse, which represents the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as an example.
Some gravestones will have an emblem that indicates the profession; such as the anvil and/or hammer for a blacksmith, fire hose for firefighters, wheat for a farmer, or military service emblem for those who served in the armed forces, to name a few.
This has been a very short overview of some of the symbolism that may be found in a cemetery. If you are interested in the symbols, there are websites such as Find-A-Grave and Billion Graves that have some photos of gravestones. Also, there are books available in your local library or for purchase in bookstores.
Email your genealogy questions with “Ancestor Search” in the subject line to AugustaGenSociety@comcast.net. For Adamson Library opening information and upcoming events, visit www.augustagensociety.org.
The Augusta Genealogical Society will host a virtual program with guest speaker and author Dr. Walter B. Curry Jr. from 1-2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26. His presentation will be “Writing Your Family History Book: The Narrative History Approach.” To register, go to www.augustagensociety.org.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Augusta Genealogical Society: Family history is etched in tombstones