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A primer to understanding Victorian cemetery iconography

Story and photos by Jason Meyers

The Wiesenmeyer gravestone in Oak Ridge Cemetery utilizes several Victorian-era symbols to tell its story.

The tradition of marking the eternal resting place of the dead is an ancient one. The memorial monument is one way humans have attempted to confront death. The trihute recognizes that a life was lived, whether hy a simple epitaph carved in stone or hy an engineering marvel, such as the pyramids of Egypt. These monuments provide meaningful insights about the people who created them. Looking at a society's cemetery art, we can better analyze its views on life and death.

In Victorian America (1837-1901), the bereaved used a variety of art and symbols to record facts and convey thoughts. Victorians used this iconography to reflect their aspirations and fears. It gave meaning to their lives, honored their loved ones, and provided order and comfort in a time of grief and confusion.

While gravestone research is not an exact science, many works have been written to identify and interpret Victorian tombstone iconography. One reason there was so much tombstone symbolism in the 19tn century is that the literacy rate was lower than today; many simply could not read the names and epitaphs of their loved ones. Therefore, a symbol on the tombstone could easily communicate that the deceased was a mother, a child, or a member of a fraternal organization.

Often, several symbols adorned a single stone, telling a unique story. This article focuses on several monuments in Springfield's historic Oak Ridge Cemetery that utilized a number of icons to convev messages to the living.

Common icons

Gravestone symbols are fairly universal in meaning across the United States. For example, an angel generally represents Gods messenger or protector, someone sent from heaven to protect the soul and guide it home. The angel is usually portrayed as a young woman (although sometimes as a child) in flight, ascending to heaven, blowing a trumpet to announce the resurrection, or holding some other well-known symbol. Other icons might have two popular interpretations. An anchor, for example, can be a religious symbol of firm faith. But it might also refer to the deceaseds occupation (sea captain), service in the navy, or even a hobby such as sailing. Other gravestone artwork is more difficult to understand. A wreath might refer to immortality, victory, friendship, or love. But it could also just be a simple decoration. And any symbol could have a unique and personal meaning known only to the family, the deceased, or the stonecarver.

Layers of meaning

Details from the Hamer-Brant treestone marker.

Nineteenth-century grave markers, large and small, employed a variety of symbols to convey different meanings or tell a story. The Hamer- Brant stone (death dates of 1872, 1882, and 1894) is a good example of the popular treestone marker, derived from the "back-to-nature" Rustic Movement. For many cultures, the tree is a symbol of life. Conversely, a dead tree represents the opposite. Therefore, Victorian "freestones were portrayed almost always as a dead tree trunk. Nevertheless, a stone trunk still offered a warmer image compared to the ubiquitous vertical slabs found in most cemeteries. Often, as in the Hamer-Brant stone, the "tree" bark is "peeled back" so that a name, dates, and/or epitaph can be engraved. The carver might use the surface of a severed branch for a similar purpose. As a symbol of death and an image of nature, the treestone was a common choice from 1870-1920.

Other symbols adorn the Hamer-Brant treestone, each with a unique message. Ivy is prominent, encircling the stone to denote attachment and devotion to family. Fern at the stone's base illustrates humility and sincerity, whether secular or religious. The oak leaves and acorns symbolize strength, firmness, endurance, and solid development. In this case, the reference was probably to the strength of the family.

About half-way up one side of the Hamer-Brant treestone is a cross inside a crown. The cross, a well-known symbol of faith, combines with the crown, a symbol of authority. to proclaim the

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sovereignty of the Lord, declare victory over death, and mark a Christian's grave.

The final two symbols on the treestone are from the animal kingdom. A bird, ready to take flight, represent the soul's ascension to heaven. It also symbolizes purity and innocence. But a dead bird denotes a life cut short. The squirrel might seem a whimsical addition to a headstone, but it serves a couple of purposes, First, there is the analogy of the industrious squirrel, which represents a Christian's preparation for heaven. Second, the squirrel fits naturally into the rustic treestone motif.

One additional note about the Hamer-Brant stone: The accompanying individual plot markers, which are logs resting on piles of stone with clinging ivy, again fits nicely with the treestone motif. The stones symbolize firmness and stability, and suggest Christ as the "Rock of Salvation." The scroll beneath the log stands for the record of life and is often engraved with a name, dates, and/or epitaph. The final touch is the cattail, a symbol of hope in salvation for those brought up in the Christian tradition.

Urns and arches

Another stone utilizing several symbols is the Strawbridge stone (death dates of 1825 and 1880). This monument is an arch, a large, permanent marker easily noticeable in the cemetery. The arch could represent the departed's journey into the unknown, or be a symbol of victory. Many arches mark the graves of husbands and wives, perhaps recognizing the earthly link, in this case, Thomas and Mary Strawbridge.

Atop the Strawbridge arch are several icons to consider. First, a full shock of wheat above Thomas's span denotes he led a full life and "produced abundant fruit' (he was 82 when he died). However, the cut-down tree above Mary's span illustrates that her life was cut short (she lived to only 31). The roses between the arches probably represent their shared love. But the rose icon often has multiple meanings.

Treestone markers appeared in cemetery landscapes between 1870 and 1920, a warm contrast to vertical slabs of stone.

An urn draped by a wreath adorns the top of the Strawbridge arch. Both urn and wreath icons were popular Victorian symbols of grief and mourning. The urn has dual meaning, first as the metaphorical vessel of our corruptible body, representing mortality; second, as the literal vessel of human ashes, which, through the act of cremation, releases the soul, which is immortal. The urn is very common in a Victorian-era cemetery.

Another urn stands atop the Wiesenmeyer stone (1878, 1882, 1892). It is covered by a drape, another symbol of mourning and used to "domesticate" the cemetery with images Victorians recognized from home. The urn sits on a large square column. Columns, square or round, suggest strength, eternity, or a full-life. If a column is broken, it indicates a life cut short. Below the urn, three other icons adorn the stone. The rose appears again, this time denoting feminine qualities of beauty associated with motherhood. Since the flower is in full bloom, it might also refer to the mother's full life. The second and third symbols are combined: a hand holding a book. Often, the book was engraved with a name or dates to act as the record of life. Other times it may symbolize wisdom or revelation. However, in this case it more likely represents the Bible. A hand by itself generally represents Gods intercession in some personal way to aid the deceased's soul. If the hand had been clasped with another, it would indicate an earthly bond, either marriage or friendship.

Yet another urn sits atop a large obelisk on the Schuchman monument (1873 and 1895). The obelisk is from the Egyptian Revival style and generally represents the sun in Egyptian culture, or eternity in Victorian adaptation. It is also another large, noticeable stone with connotations of "deeper" remembrance. Near the obelisk's base is a lamb, which generally symbolizes Christian discipleship. However, among Victorian tombstones, lambs almost always indicate the graves of children, associating them with the innocent and gentle qualities of a lamb. This Schuchman stone marks the resting spot of Andrew and Willie Schuchman, both 4 years old at their deaths.

A variety of symbols tell a small story on the Boetticher stone. At the top a book is closed, the binding facing to the right, which indicates that a life has been finished. On the stone's face is engraved a bird, flying through opening gates and under an arch. Here, the deceased's soul (the bird) flies through the gates (entrance to heaven) and praises his or her victory in death (the arch), made possible through Christ's salvation.

What does all this symbolism tell us? First, that graven images gave meaning to Victorian-era life and helped grieving people confront the finality of death. Second, that American Victorians were largely Christian in their attitude toward mortality, and, that they adorned their headstones with religious motifs and icons to express their beliefs. Third, that when secular imagery was used to decorate headstones, the artwork conveyed death as beautiful and hopeful, not cold and final. This expressive and often ostentatious attitude toward death differed significantly from that of our colonial ancestors. Certainly, death was sad and all-too-common in the 19th century, but Victorians kept their focus on memory and eternity, rather than on darkness and morbidity. For that vision, our cemeteries today are as much outdoor museums as burial grounds.

Jason Meyers is the curator of collections at the Museum of Funeral Customs, and former assistant director of the Illinois State Historical Society.

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