Burial symbology has been around for about as long as there have been burials. A recent discovery of a 12,000 year old shaman’s grave suggests this woman had a greater connection to the afterlife. It’s hard to miss the symbology in the archaeological remains of Ancient Egypt with its detailed embalming rituals and astounding tombs. Comparatively speaking, our western cemeteries aren’t nearly as grand. But I think they’re impressive in their own right.
I like old cemeteries for their history but also for the love left there. I was born and raised in Chicago where the oldest cemeteries are these amazing monument parks dedicated to love. Chicago, a long-time hub of trade and commerce, had more than its share of well-heeled Victorian industrialists and financiers– people who did it up large in both life and death. Many well-known Chicagoans of the past are buried in Rosehill cemetery.
On the National Register of Historic Places, Rosehill is one of the most impressive of all the Victorian cemeteries found around the city. Here, beautiful and ostentatious monuments and tombs sit amid small, very old oak trees. Off topic but interesting enough to mention briefly, those oak trees are actually hundreds of years old. They’re thin-trunked and stunted by the sandy, nutrient-poor soil of Lake Michigan. You’d never know they’re ancient trees to look at them.
Ok, back on point…
Old Victorian cemeteries are filled with symbolism.
Queen Victoria was a trendsetter throughout her long reign and the Victorian era’s death fixation originates with her. After husband Prince Albert died, the remaining 40 years of her life was one long and sad mourning period. Because everything she did was emulated, death and loss became in vogue. Death was both fashion statement and artistic expression. Victorian cemeteries like Rosehill are true to this Victorian eccentricity. Most are beautiful tributes to love and loss.
Stories in stone
Many years ago my husband and I volunteered to care for a small abandoned cemetery not far from where we once lived. Small forgotten plots dot the American countryside and often don’t have the resources for their care as larger cemeteries do. Vandalism and neglect take their toll. As stewards, our job consisted of mowing and trimming around the headstones. In the process, we discovered an unknown, un-inventoried 1870s grave covered over by time and turf. The old limestone headstone had a beautiful poem about the deceased and this was accompanied by a base relief of a woman’s hand in the act of pouring water from a pitcher. I clearly saw symbolism on the stone, but this was long before personal computers or the internet. I had no ready resources at the time to explain the meaning behind the pouring pitcher. My small town library had nothing on the shelves to explain it either. Info hound that I am, it gnawed at me that I didn’t know. lol
Have you ever walked a cemetery and wondered about that stone lamb or concrete tree stump? What’s with the sculptured hands, beehives, weeping willows, and burning torches? These symbols tell us stories if we stop to read them. They offer a fascinating glimpse into the eccentric and ostentatious time period known as the Victorian era. Learn how to read them and you’ll discover those people’s lives in microcosm.
The following links will help you read the small stories that head stones, crypts, and monuments tell. Fascinating stuff.
If you’re interested in becoming a cemetery steward, your local historical society can get you involved. Here’s a site devoted to grave preservation: http://saveagrave.net/
Headstone Rubbing How-to:
Thin quilter’s muslin works better than paper. So does Pellon interfacing. Blue painter’s tape won’t damage the stone. Melt some crayons and pour in a paper cup to harden to get yourself a nice large crayon hockey puck to work with. Rub gently, the image will eventually darken. Be extra careful not to get wax on the stone and be sure to clean up after yourself. Here’s a video example:
Tomorrow: More symbols
“Many useful and valuable books lie buried in shops and libraries unknown and unexamined, unless some lucky compiler opens them by chance, and finds an easy spoil of wit and learning.”
~Samuel Johnson, 1760
Today’s guest ~ Anna Durand
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