The majority of gravestones (especially the newer ones) have important information on them that is very helpful to genealogists. You can find out a person’s name, birth date, and death date just by looking. What isn’t as obvious is the meaning behind the symbols that are carved or sculpted onto the gravestone. Here is a quick look at the meanings behind a few prevalent cemetery symbols.
Atlas Obscura has put together a graphic that includes several images of some of the most prevalent cemetery symbols. You may have seen some of them on gravestones during your last trip to a cemetery.
One of the images is of a winged skull, which is described as: “Popular especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, the flying skull signifies the fleetingness of life, and the soul soaring into the afterlife”. It may feel strange that such a grim looking image was intended to refer to the reassuring concept of the deceased’s soul “soaring into the afterlife”.
Another image Atlas Obscura mentions is that of an open book. Interestingly, it does not mean that the deceased was a writer. Instead, the open book represents “a person’s love of literature, or a reference to a Bible, the open book is a symbol for a human heart open to God as well as the deeds of a person’s life being recorded.”
Have you ever seen a tree stump shaped gravestone? The tree stumps are a reference not to the afterlife, but to this one. Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) as a fraternal benefit society. After he was evicted from the society, he started Woodmen of the World. He kept the word “Woodman” in the name because it reminded him of something said in a sermon that he found inspiring.
From 1890 to 1900, Woodmen of the World’s life insurance policies includes a proviso that provided for the grave markers for members, free of charge. Later, starting in 1900 and ending in the mid-1920’s, members paid for a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument. Woodmen of the World discontinued this service in the mid-1920’s.
The result is there are a lot of gravestones from that timeframe that look like tree stumps. This symbol meant that the deceased had a Woodmen of the World’s life insurance policy (and/or the rider policy). Some of the tree stump gravestones were altered to personalize them. Others were added to, or subtracted from when an additional family member was buried in the same plot.
Image by Phillip Pessar on Flickr
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