THE MYSTERY of graveyard art & symbols
- grave markers
& tombstones -The tombstone, or grave marker, underwent much the same type of transformation as the cemetery did. The
graveyards changed from the crowded churchyards and charnel houses to the tranquil, park-like settings of the early 1900’s.
Tombstones also started out as crude items that were used more because of superstition than for remembrance of the dead.
first grave markers were literally stones and boulders that were used to keep the dead from rising out of their graves. It
was thought, in these primitive times, that if heavy rocks were placed on the grave sites of the deceased, they would not
be able to climb out from underneath them. As time went on, a need came for the living to mark the graves of the dead with
a reminder of about the person who was buried there. Many of the markers were made from wood, or rough stone, and did not
last long when exposed to the elements.
Early monuments and grave stones in Europe and in old New England were crude and
were carved with frightening motifs like winged skulls, skeletons and angels of death. The idea was to frighten the living
with the very idea of death. In this way, they were apt to live a more righteous life after seeing the images of decay and
horror on the markers of the dead. It would not be until the latter part of the 1800’s that scenes of eternal peace
would replace those of damnation.
Eventually, grave markers, monuments and tombs became a craft, as well as an art form.
In those days, many brick layers and masons began to take up side jobs as gravestone carvers but soon demand became so great
that companies formed to meet the needs of this new trade. Stone work companies formed all over the country, especially in
Vermont, where a huge supply of granite was readily available. Many stones and monuments that were carved and cut in Vermont
were done by Scottish and Italian immigrants. The most delicate carving was done by the Italians though. As children, many
of them had trained in Milan, going to school at night to be carvers. Despite the thousands of statues and mausoleums that
were created, only a few dozen carvers could handle the most intricate work.
The peak for the new funeral industry and
for graveyard art and mausoleums came in the last part of the 1800’s, the Victorian era. During these years, American
cemeteries were packed with massive and beautiful statues and tombs. This was a time when maudlin excess and ornamentation
was greatly in fashion. Funerals were extremely important to the Victorians, as were fashionable graves and mausoleums. The
skull and crossbones tombstones had all but vanished by this time and now cemeteries had become very survivor-friendly. ...
and of course, heartbreakingly sad.
Early grave markers were filled with dark symbols and images of death and horror.
Scantily dressed mourners carved from stone now guarded the doors of the tombs and angels draped themselves over monuments
in agonizing despair. The excessive ornamentation turned the graveyards into a showplace for the rich and the prestigious.
Many of them became inundated with artwork and crowded with crypts as the society folk attempted to outdo one another. Gaudy
and maudlin artwork like furniture, carved flowers and life-size (and larger) statues dominated the landscape. Realistic representations
of the dead began to appear, as did novelty monuments like that of the Di Salvo family in Chicago’s Mount Carmel Cemetery.
This marker portrays the entire family on a round dais... that spins 360 degrees! A seemingly heartbroken angel drapes herself
in despair over the grave of the deceased.
The gravestones themselves have proven to be just as fascinating to cemetery
enthusiasts. As mentioned previously, the earliest American stones were copies of the old European ones with skulls, crossbones
and death’s heads decorating their surfaces. Later, carvings on the stone began to represent the grief of the family
and began to make a statement about the life of the person buried beneath it. As time passed, even the plainest of illustrations
began to take on a new significance.
A variety of different images were used to symbolize both death and life, like angels,
who were seen as the emissaries between this world and the next. In some cases they appeared as mourners and on other graves,
as an offer of comfort for those who are left behind.
inverted torches, spilled flower pots and funeral urns were meant as simple images of lives that were ended too soon. Some
graves were marked with the image of an hour glass with wings that represented the fleeting passage of time or with ferns
and anchors that were meant to give hope to grieving loved ones. Much the same can be said of clasped hands, bibles and pointing
fingers. These symbols direct the mourners to look toward heaven and know that the worries of the world are now past.
like roses or lilies, were common symbols that represented love and purity or that life is like a blooming flower, never meant
to be permanent. There are other monuments where depictions of discarded clothing, opened books or forgotten tools have been
etched or carved. Such items are meant to symbolize the fact that the dead have left behind the burdens of life. The depiction
of wheat or a sickle would show the reaping of the soul and the gathering of the harvest to the next world.
planets and stars have various meanings in the cemetery, from that of rising saints to that of glorified souls. They can also
signify that heaven is the abode of the stars and the planets.
Trees, and most especially the famous “willow tree”
motif, stood for human life and the fact that man, like a tree, must reach for the heavens. The willow itself often stood
for mourning. Trees could also have other meanings, especially when the monuments were made to look like wood. Cemetery visitors
can often find examples of chairs, centerpieces and even entire monuments that are designed to look like the rough wood of
a tree. These markers symbolize the fact that the tree has died, its life has been taken away, just like the life of the person
the stone honors.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking, and often most eerie, monuments mark the graves of children. These images
include the images of disembodied hands from heaven reaching down to pluck flowers from the earth and small lambs, lost and
alone. Cribs and beds are sometimes seen, holding the images of sleeping children, or are often empty, symbolizing that these
little ones are gone forever. Most disconcerting of all are the life-size images of the children themselves. They stare out
at the cemetery visitor with lifeless, and occasionally frightening, eyes.
Gravestones and markers have a myriad of meanings
and symbolize both comfort and grief... but are they all what they appear to be? Throughout this book so far, I have suggested
the idea that cemeteries and burial grounds can become haunted. But what about the grave markers that exist within these haunted
cemeteries? Do some of these monuments actually become haunted by the ghosts who are unable to rest within the bounds of the
The annals of ghost lore contain a number of stories about burial markers that may possibly be more frightening
than the tales of the cemeteries where these stones reside!
This statue decorates the grave of a boy who was never able
to walk in life. His likeness was carved in his wheelchair and the chair now has broken wheels to show that he has left behind
the cares of life.
Grave markers and
simple tombstones can play host to a surprising number of stories and legends. There are stones across America that people
claim to have been not only cursed, but literally move on their own! Is the supernatural at work, or the darker devices of
man’s own imagination? This 12-foot tall statue stands on the grave of St. Louis druggist Herman Luyties, who fell in
love with the model for the design while in Paris. As she refused to marry him, he had her likeness carved in stone. It stood
in the foyer of his home until he died. His family then had the statue moved to his grave.
There have been many ghostly
tales told about "haunted" tombstones and monuments, including:
- The Flaming Tomb of Josie Arlington in New Orleans. According
to legend her eerie crypt would light up at night as if on fire. It was also said that a life-sized statue on the steps outside
would come to life.
- The Gravestone of John Rowan in Bardstown, Kentucky. The stories say that Rowan did not want a gravestone
when he died and as one was placed on his grave anyway, it continues to mysteriously fall over, even today.
- The grave
monument of Jonathan Buck in Bucksport, Maine is said to be marked with the image of a witch's leg. Legend has it that Buck
was cursed by a witch who promised to return and dance on his grave.
- In Cleveland, Tennessee, a family that was cursed
with accidents and tragedy is said to have reached out from beyond the grave to stain the walls of their tomb with blood.
The strange stains have never been explained.
- In Illinois, a community mausoleum was haunted by the ghosts of those who
were buried there. Even after the tomb was destroyed, their voices could be heard in the night and witnesses have reported
cold chills on the site.
Black Angel that stands on the grave of the Feldevert family in Iowa City is said to be cursed. Stories have been told that
say the statue causes strange deaths, accidents and more. A number of ghosts have been reported around the statue at night.
The likeness of Inez Clarke, who rests in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, is said to leave the glass box the statue is enclosed
in and wander about the cemetery during thunderstorms. Legend has it the little girl was killed when struck by lightning at
a family picnic.