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Here Rest Upon the Lap of Earth: Cemetery Culture & Symbolism
“The dead have few friends; be one of them”
"For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;”
-from ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,’ by Thomas Gray (1751)
Some time ago I posted here on practices which connected to one’s ancestors, including a few things you might try out in an old cemetery (such as Papa Toad Bone’s card games upon the graves). Many people seem to be afraid of graveyards, and to avoid them altogether. Each year I organize a neighborhood cleanup around my workplace, which involves tidying a fairly major historic cemetery, and I frequently have few volunteers for that particular task, for example. I personally find an old boneyard to be a powerfully beautiful place, full of history, magic, and a strange strength. There is a hidden world inside the cemetery which few seem to see, and that means, of course, that they are perfect for folks with a witchy bent. Understanding and caring for graveyards is not a hobby that appeals to everyone, of course, but for those who don’t mind spending a little time among the moss-painted marble it can be incredibly rewarding. Below you will find some information on cemetery culture, including ways to ‘read’ a churchyard and a headstone (beyond simply the names and dates inscribed), a little trivia, and some ideas for what to do on a cemetery outing.
Reading the Graveyard
Anyone can, of course, walk up to a legible headstone or plaque and take note of the person who passed, his or her dates of birth and death, and any funerary epitaph on the marker. Other layers of information exist beyond the textual, however. Next time you find yourself in a cemetery, here are some things of which you might take note.
Symbols & Images – Older stones frequently have incredibly intricate carvings on them. In America, headstones predating the Civil War were frequently highly ornamented. After the 1860s, however, the stones become much more plain and matter-of-fact, largely due to the sheer number of stones that had to be made in a very short time to accommodate dead soldiers. Some of the symbols to look for are:
· Winged Skulls – Also known as Death’s Heads. These can frequently be found in old cemeteries in England and New England, and represent the winged presence of death, which can come quickly at any time and which serve as a memento mori to the living. After the early 19th century, the skulls were replaced by more human faces and represented the angels who were watching over the dead and the living (the grimmer disposition of early colonials giving way to the ever-more transcendental philosophies of the 1800s).
· Broken or Bent Flowers & Trees – These frequently meant that the person’s life was unexpectedly cut short, which could indicate a death of unnatural causes or a sudden illness. Multiple stones around the same date with similar symbols would likely indicate an epidemic of some kind in the area.
· Hands – Hands could mean either the work of praying for the deceased (possibly an indicator of a less than scrupulous life) or that the body is commended into the hands of God/the Divine.
· Seashells – Usually these represent the person’s journey as a Christian in life, or in some cases might represent their status as a ‘pilgrim’ on a spiritual path.
· Rooster or Cock – The rooster, which greets the sunrise with its crow, is a symbol of hope and resurrection. In some cases it can also be a call for repentance, and so may be found on a ‘sinner’s’ grave as easily as a saint’s.
· Fraternal Order Symbols – The familiar Compass & Square of the Freemasons is found on a number of older headstones (and new ones as well). Other organizations frequently placed symbols on members’ stones as well. For example, a tree stump with an axe and the motto Dum Tacet Clamat (“Though Silent He Speaks”) indicates an initiate of the Woodmen of the World.
· Thistle – The thistle often indicates a Scottish heritage of some kind.
· Wheat – The presence of a wheat symbol means that the person was a highly respected member of the community, most often a devout man who was seen as productive and industrious in his lifetime.
· Morning Glory – The presence of a morning glory flower on a grave usually means the death of a child.
Initials – Some graves have initials marked on them which do not match the site’s resident. In most cases, these are abbreviations for a motto of some kind which express some religious sentiment or make a statement about the person buried there. Some common ones:
· INRI – Stands for the Latin “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” (anyone who’s seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade knows that the I was interchangeable with the J in Latin). This was the reputed inscription on the cross of Jesus, and simply means “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” When included on a gravestone, it indicates a person of strong Christian faith.
· IHC – An adaptation of the Greek name for Jesus.
· FLT – This stands for “Friendship, Love, & Truth,” three ideals held by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, one the secret societies like the Masons or Woodmen mentioned above. If it appears with a linked chain, the person buried there was likely a member.
· FCL – “Friendship, Charity, & Loyalty,” which could be a simple reference to noble virtues, but might also indicate that the woman interred there was a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Grounds – The overall layout of the cemetery might provide some interesting information about its history and the life of those buried therein. In some cases, the orientation of the graves or boundary markers have no deeper symbolism, so you cannot draw complete conclusions from such things, but they may provide a good place to start looking for more details on local history. Some tidbits of note:
· Grave Orientation – In some cemeteries, the graves are oriented east-west. Generally this is because the graves are arranged so that the denizens of the cemetery are facing the rising sun (a play on the “risen Son” of Christianity). It was sometimes believed that the faithful would be resurrected on Judgment Day at sunrise, thus the light of Heaven should be the first light they see. A grave facing west in a cemetery with this orientation would likely be the grave of a wicked person—a thief, murderer, or witch (although in some cases they receive their own special part of the burial grounds).
· Wolfstones – These long, heavy slabs which sit between head and footstones are designed to keep wild animals—like wolves—from digging up the deceased. In most cases, this means that the original cemetery was located on the outskirts of the settlement or town, near the woods (thus making it a very potent “in-between” place).
· Hedgerows – When birds eat berries, seeds, and nuts, they frequently roost on elevated surfaces, like fences and posts. If you see a wild hedge of mixed plants, it likely means that the original cemetery boundary was where the hedge is, because the birds would sit on the fence eating their food, and dropping seeds to the ground in a nice, relatively neat row.
· The Northern Grounds – In the northernmost part of some graveyards you will find the motley selection of those “unmentionable” souls—the criminals, suicides, and other unhallowed folks who require burial but were thought to be unwelcome among Christian society. Who doesn’t love a rogue’s gallery?
A Grave Affair
In earlier times, people—indeed whole families—would make an event of visiting the cemetery. Packing up picnic lunches and wearing their best clothes, everyone would eat by the gravesite of a beloved relative (or many of them in family plots). Some cemeteries still have stone picnic tables near burial grounds because the practice was so popular that the graveyards had to accommodate visitors. Now such outings are rare, save for the Hispanic practice of making a family celebration at a gravesite on dia de (los) Muertos. If you’re looking for a reason to spend more time in a boneyard, here are some ideas you might try.
· Cleanups – Graveyard cleanups are frequently needed to remove detritus and debris from the site. Frequently these sorts of efforts require volunteers, especially in larger or government-run cemeteries, so why not sign up to help clean up? You’ll develop a relationship with the cemetery while also doing a good service for the dead and the living. I’ve done this for a few years now, and it’s always a fun experience. I’ve even found objects that were to be thrown away that I was able to reclaim and turn into useful magical tools, so you never know just what will happen!
· Games – In some places you can simply sit for hours at gravesides, especially in public cemeteries (which are essentially just large parks with lots of stones in them). Why not bring along a game and/or a divination tool and see what the dead do with you? I mentioned Papa Toad Bone’s card game previously, but you could also do most any simple game with the dead, such as checkers or dice. You might use a pendulum to figure out what your deceased companion wants to do with his or her turn, or you could even bring along a Ouija board and see if they want to play a game like hangman or Mad Libs.
· Food – Everyone loves a party, especially with lots of food. You could reclaim the picnics of the past and bring a nice lunch out to the graveyard. If it is allowed by the groundskeeper (always check first), you might even leave a little food on the grave, too.
· Grave Rubbings – If you get yourself a good kit and the right tools, making grave rubbings is immensely fun and provides you with very interesting art to display in your home (or to turn into things like shirts, cards, etc.). Always make sure you talk to the groundskeeper first and that you are allowed to make rubbings. Some places will not let you do it under any circumstances, and others simply want you to get permission first or to show that you have knowledge of gravestone care and maintenance.
This discussion only barely scratches the earthy surface of a very big topic, of course. I’ve not hit on Native mounds, obelisks, the folklore of cemetery plants, and I’ve left off dozens of symbols you might find on various markers. Hopefully, however, this will be a good starting point for getting familiar with the churchyards and gravesites around you. The practice of being a living part of cemetery culture is pertinent to those of us with ancestral, necromantic, or even nature-oriented spirituality. After all, we will one day return to the earth as well, and who wouldn’t want a friend or two on the other side of the veil then? As the proverb which starts this article says, it is a good thing—a magical thing, even—to be a friend to the dead.
2. Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States, by Henry Glassie (Univ. of Penn. Press, 1968).
3. The Old Stone & Brass Rubbing Kit, by Paulette Chernack, Jacqueline Sach, & Cassandra Davidson ( Cider Mill Press, 2007).
4. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism & Iconography, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, 2004).
5. Stories Told in Stone: Cemetery Iconology, by Gaylord Cooper (MOTES, 2009).
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