Mastering Cemetery Iconography

For Symposium Week 2021, Ms. Healy offered a Master Class titled “Cemetery Iconography,” which was a two-hour course that would take place off-campus. The master class drove north to the Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich, MA. It was established in 1634 and is one of the oldest cemeteries in North America. The question was, “Why on earth did Ms. Healy decide to offer this class?”

Ms. Healy grew up in a very small town (at the time!) in Virginia that had been settled by German immigrants in the mid 1700’s. In fact, the town was known as “The German Settlement” before being renamed Lovettsville. There wasn’t much to the town except for a general store, a gas station, a post office, and several churches–three Lutheran, one Methodist and one Church of Christ. Most social activities took place at the various churches. Ms. Healy grew up going to New Jerusalem Lutheran Church. It is a beautiful church to this day and it is surrounded by a very large cemetery. As a young kid, Ms. Healy loved exploring the cemetery and was fascinated by the variety of gravestones.

Upon moving to the North Shore, Ms. Healy became interested in the iconography and memento mori of some of the older burying grounds in Massachusetts. Just as so many things in life change from generation to generation, so have our cemeteries.

The early burying grounds of New England offer fantastic examples of primitive American art. In the words of Edward Vinvent Gillon, “[An] unheralded wealth of material is to be found in the carved designs on the tombstones, which stand not only as monuments of the individuality of the deceased, but also as testimonials to the innate sense of design and excellent craftsmanship of the stone cutters who produced them. These stone slabs with their brooding death’s heads, winged cherubs, stylized portraits, and willows and urns. Are reflections of the religious beliefs, philosophy, and fashion of their time.”

Memento Mori, translated from Latin, means “remember that you die.” Many early tombstones are inscribed with both symbols and words, some seeming quite macabre to us today:

As you are now,
So once was I;
As I am now,
So you must be.
So prepare for death
And follow me.

As students began exploring the tombstones of the Ipswich cemetery, they were instructed to keep an eye out for certain symbols and iconographies that each tell a story and give us a glimpse at the lives of those buried underground hundreds of years ago.

Alpha & Omega
Alpha (A), the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega (), the last letter, are often found combined into a single symbol representing Christ. Revelation 22:13 in the King James version of the Bible says, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” For this reason, the juxtaposed symbols often represent God’s eternity, or the “beginning” and the “end.” The two symbols are sometimes found used with the Chi Rho (PX) symbol. Individually, Alpha and Omega are also symbols of eternity that pre-exist Christianity. 

The anchor was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety and was adopted by Christians as a symbol of hope and steadfastness. The anchor also represents the anchoring influence of Christ. Some say it was used as a sort of disguised cross. The anchor also serves as a symbol for seamanship and may mark the grave of a seaman, or be used as a tribune to St. Nicholas, patron saint of seamen. And an anchor with a broken chain symbolizes the cessation of life. 

Angels found in the cemetery are a symbol of spirituality. They guard the tomb and are thought to be messengers between God and man. The angel, or “messenger of God,” may appear in many different poses, each with its own individual meaning. An angel with open wings is thought to represent the flight of the soul to heaven. Angels may also be shown carrying the deceased in their arms as if taking or escorting them to heaven. A weeping angel symbolizes grief, especially mourning an untimely death. An angel blowing a trumpet may depict the day of judgment. Two specific angels can often be identified by the instruments they carry – Michael by his sword and Gabriel with her horn. 

Broken Column
A broken column indicates a life cut short, a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Calla Lily
A symbol reminiscent of the Victorian Era, the calla lily represents majestic beauty and is often used to represent marriage or resurrection.

Celtic Cross or Irish Cross
The Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

Clasping Hands
Symbolizing a final farewell – often when one person has passed on and one is left behind.

Daughters of Rebekah
The entwined letters D and R, the crescent moon, the dove, and the three-link chain are all common symbols of the Daughters of Rebekah. Other symbols commonly associated with the Daughters of Rebekah include the beehive, the moon (sometimes embellished with seven stars), the dove and the white lily. Collectively, these symbols represent the feminine virtues of industriousness at home, order and the laws of nature, and innocence, gentleness, and purity. 

Seen in both Christian and Jewish cemeteries, the dove is a symbol of resurrection, innocence, and peace. An ascending dove represents the transport of the departed soul to heaven. A dove descending represents a descent from heaven, assurance of safe passage. A dove lying dead symbolizes a life cut prematurely short. If the dove is holding an olive branch, it symbolizes that the soul has reached divine peace in heaven. 

Flying Hourglass
Similar to the Winged Skull, the flying hourglass symbolizes the swift passage of time – sometimes literally flying with wings.

Hands – Pointing Finger
A hand with the index finger pointing upward symbolizes the hope of heaven, while a hand with forefinger pointing down represents God reaching down for the soul. Seen as an important symbol of life, hands carved into gravestones represent the deceased’s relationships with other human beings and with God. Cemetery hands tend to be shown doing one of the four things: blessing, clasping, pointing, and praying. 

Ivy and Vines
Ivy carved into a tombstone is said to represent friendship, fidelity, and immortality. The hardy, evergreen lead of the ivy denotes immortality and rebirth or regeneration.

Laurel Wreath
Laurel, especially when fashioned in the shape of a wreath, is a common symbol found in the cemetery. It can represent victory, distinction, eternity or immortality.

The lion serves as a guardian in the cemetery, protecting a tomb from unwanted visitors and evil spirits. It symbolizes the courage and bravery of the departed. Lions in the cemetery can usually be found sitting on top of vaults and tombs, watching over the final resting place of the departed. They also represent the courage, power, and strength of the deceased individual. 

Oak Leaves and Acorns
The mighty oak tree, often represented as oak leaves and acorns, signifies strength, honor, longevity and steadfastness.

Sleeping Child
A sleeping child was often used to signify death during the Victorian era. As expected, it generally decorates the grace of a baby or young child. Figures of sleeping babies or children often appear with very few clothes, symbolizing that young, innocent children had nothing to cover up or hide. 

Torch, Inverted
The inverted torch is a true cemetery symbol, symbolizing life in the next realm or a life extinguished. A lit torch represents life, immortality and the everlasting life. Conversely, an inverted torch represents death or the passing of the soul into the next life. Generally the inverted torch will still bear a flame, but even without the flame it still represents a life extinguished.

Tree Trunk
A tombstone in the shape of a tree trunk is symbolic of the brevity of life. The number of broken branches appearing on the tree trunk may indicate deceased family members buried at that site. 

The urn symbolizes death itself. The Greeks used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for ashes of the dead. From the 1770’s to the 1820’s, urns with willow branches carved around them were popular on gravestones in New England’s burial grounds. The urns symbolizes death and the willows symbolized grief. 

Weeping Willow
The dripping branches of weeping willow trees symbolize the drooping spirits and hearts of those who have lost their beloved family member. The weeping willow tree was a very popular carving on gravestones at the end of the 1700’s and early 1800’s in Massachusetts among early settlers. 

In its generic form, the wheel represents the cycle of life, enlightenment, and divine power. A wheel might also represent a wheelwright. Specific types of wheel symbols that might be found in the cemetery include the eight -spoked Buddhist wheel of righteousness, and the circular eight-spoked wheel of the Church of World Messianity, with alternating fat and thin spokes. Or, as with all cemetery symbols, it could just be a pretty decoration. 

Winged Skull
Popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Symbolizes the fleetingness of life and the sold soaring into the afterlife. 

(Above descriptions by Kimberley Powell – Cemetery Symbols & Icons)

After reading through each description of cemetery iconographies, students were tasked to respectfully walk the graveyard to see what they can find. 

What is the oldest grave? How many symbols can you identify? What is the most unusual inscription? 

Students stumbled upon this tombstone. The urn iconography on this stone symbolizes death itself. The Greeks used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for ashes of the dead. From the 1770s to 1820s, urns with willow branches carved around them were popular on gravestones in New England’s burial grounds. The urns symbolized death and the willows symbolized grief. (Kimberley Powell – Cemetery Symbols and Icons)

The inscription on this gravestone reads:

Beneath this cold clod
lies the mortal part of
Mrs. Sarah Smith,
the amiable consort of
Capt. Ammi Smith,
who departed this life on
August 18th 1797,
aged 31 years

“Farewell surviving friends,
My sun went down at noon,
Prepare yourselves for death
For you must follow soon.”