Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

August 15, 2012

Morris: Thoughts on cemetery symbolism

Ben Morris, MA, RPA
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Cemeteries contain a wealth of information about a community.

For example, date clusters on grave markers may be a clue that a natural disaster such as an epidemic swept through a community.

Exceptionally large or very tall tombstones, such as those erected during the turn of the century, typically mark the grave of a VIP or socially prominent member of the community. Surnames (last names) on grave markers can be a clue to cultural origins.

Symbols on grave markers usually possess special meanings to those buried there. Common symbols include anchors. The anchor typically symbolizes hope in Jesus Christ and his anchoring influence upon the lives of Christians. In seaside communities, the anchor marked the final resting place of a dedicated seaman.

Birds in flight represent the flight of the soul to the afterlife. Eagles are used to represent a military or American patriotic background. A dove symbolized the Holy Spirit and/or peace. Books on a tombstone usually represent the Bible and religious faithfulness.

The Cross reflects the buried person's belief in Christianity. Crowns represents the glory of life after death, or the deceased's ascension into Heaven.

Gates or bars represents the entrance of the departed into Heaven. Hands with fingers pointing upward usually mean that the deceased has traveled upward to heaven. Two hands grasping one another symbolizes eternal friendship or eternal love, often used for married couples.

A heart can symbolize many things. Chief among these are love. Whether love of God or love of another, such as a spouse or family. The heart is used to symbolize devotion to something or someone.

The hourglass is a symbol of time. The image usually depicts time's passing and the inevitability of death. An hourglass indicates that person's time on earth expired and implies that visitors reading the marker should embrace life because it, much like the flow of the sand in an hourglass, is finite and will eventually end.

Ben Morris, MA, RPA, is an archaeological and historical consultant for the Daily News. He can be reached at 812-932-0298 or bjmorris1935@gmail.com.