Coming from a place like Chicago, where magnificent sculptures in grand Victorian cemeteries reflected, in death, the opulence in life, I found these pioneer cemeteries held understated headstones that said just as much about the person below it. It took me years to decipher the subtle code (I really get a kick out of symbolism). It all started on Memorial Day 35 years ago. Armed with a bouquet of little American flags, we took our young family to several of these old cemeteries and said thank you to each soldier interred there. It became a family tradition. Since Memorial Day just passed, I thought I'd share a bit of the cemetery code.
The use of headstones is thought to stem from the belief that ghosts could be weighed down. On marble and limestone, a wide variety of pictorial images have been used to commemorate the dead. These icons are designed to communicate something about the deceased, and they not only provide insight into the nature of the person, but say much about his family as well. The artistry found in these older cemeteries really conveys the affection for the lost loved one. In fact, if you've ever wondered why Victorian cemeteries look like lovely parks, that's because they were planned as rural recreational parks where families could picnic with their lost loved ones. Victorians did death in grand style.
I have a lot of information-- far too much for this post--but I may do a cemetery icon blog post as part of my yearly Symbol Series. For this post I'll just touch upon flowers.
Flowers convey a bevy of emotions. Symbolic connection between flowers with emotion is a cross-cultural thing and their origins are unknown. Even Neanderthal graves revealed pollen suggesting flowers were placed there with the dead. During the 1800s, the use of floral symbolism became so popular that almost every known flower had a symbolic gesture attached to it. Here are some common symbolic flower and plant references:
Acacia - immortality of soul
Calla lily - symbolizes marriage.
Cypress tree - designates hope
Daffodil - death of youth, desire, art, grace, beauty, deep regard.
Dead leaves - sadness, melancholy
Dogwood - divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
Fern - sincerity, sorrow
Figs - prosperity, eternal life
Fleur-de-lis - flame, passion, ardor, mother
Flower - frailty of life. Broken flower - a life terminated, mortality.
Forget-me-not - remembrance
Fruits - eternal plenty as in the fruit of life
Ivy - memory, immortality, friendship, fidelity, faithfulness, undying affection, eternal life.
Grapes and Leaves - faith.
Laurel Leaves - special achievement, distinction, success, triumph
Lily - majesty, innocence. Often seen on women's graves. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence of the soul at death.
Rosemary - for remembrance
Rose - love, beauty, hope, unfailing love, associated with Mary. A red rose symbolizes martyrdom while white symbolizes. Whether the rose is a bud, flower or somewhere in between indicates how old the person was at the time of death:
- Bud - normally a child 12 or under
- Partial bloom - normally a teenager
- Full bloom - normally in early/mid twenties. Died in the prime of life
- Rosebud, broken - life cut short, usually found with a young person's grave
- Rosebuds, joining - strong bond between two people, such as a mother and child who died at the same time
- Rosebuds, several on same branch - secrecy
- Wreath of Rose - Beauty and virtue rewarded
- Trunks represent the brevity of life.
- Severed branch - mortality
- Sprouting - life everlasting.
- Weeping Willow Tree -. nature's lament, a symbol of sorrow and perpetual mourning.
Bushel and sheaves - often represents the aged. The divine harvest.
You can copy some of these flatter headstone artworks by making wax rubbings on cloth. Rubbings of sheaves of wheat or fingers pointing toward Heaven make interesting wall art when framed. Here's how:
The Best Technique for Headstone Rubbings~
- Get permission. Some cemeteries don't allow it.
- Clean the stone. Insure clear and sharp copy use a soft brush to gently remove bird droppings, dirt, moss, lichen etc from the surface. You never want to damage the stone by cleaning it. If you have trouble clearing it off, don’t apply more pressure. Walk away and find another.
- Tape the fabric to the stone with blue painters tape or us hold it securely with very large rubber bands. I've used light muslin and interfacing. The latter works best. Slippage will cause a blurred or double-image effect. Make sure the cloth covers the stone entirely so that you won't get wax marks on it.
- Start on the outer edges and work inward. Block in the basic design by using a broad flat edge of your rubbing wax (I melt a small box of crayons and form the wax in a paper cup for this.) Pick a direction that you feel most comfortable rubbing in. It doesn't matter if you end up rubbing diagonally, horizontally, or vertically. Whichever way you start, but sticking with one direction will result in a more visually appealing finished project. Try to use even pressure throughout the entire rubbing process to avoid obvious streaks that will show up when you press harder.
- Darken the design, fill it in until the color and richness suits you. Some people like very dark rubbings, while others like lightly colored ones. It's a matter of personal preference.
Rose Anderson is an award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and delights in discovering interesting things to weave into stories. Rose also writes across genres under the pen name Madeline Archer. She lives with her family and small menagerie amid oak groves and prairie in the rolling glacial hills of the upper Midwest.
Stop by my blog for interesting topics all month long.
Find my links page and free reads too! Subscribe to get my posts in your inbox!
Find Madeline's sweet to spooky stories and Rose's scorching novels in ebook and paperback on Amazon, Barnes&Noble,