Once every few years I venture into the old cemetery up the dirt road. As I was walking past the cemetery today, the gate was open. I noticed this little detail right away and found that odd as it is always latched shut. I took it as an invitation for a totally spontaneous visit! Usually when I visit a cemetery, I focus on the names and the dates of the stones. Today was no exception. On my initial pass through this small cemetery, I reminded myself of the several family names that were represented here. The stones all date to the 1700’s and 1800’s with several graves indicating military service in the civil war. As I came to the last row of stones, my focus shifted and my gaze settled on the unique “artwork” on each stone.
I became curious about the different symbols that were chosen by the surviving family members who were responsible for arranging the completion of the gravestones. After I arrived home and processed the photos, I did some research into the meaning of some of the symbols. Fascinating reading! There are a number of websites out there devoted to gravestone studies.
I found out that the symbol on the above photograph – a hand pointing up – “signifies the reward of the righteous, confirmation of life after death” or “Heavenly reward, ascension to Heaven.” This interpretation seems consistent across multiple websites including the Association for Gravestone Studies.
My second photograph depicted what appeared to be an “eye” under the words In God We Trust. I found that there are many variations of “eye” symbols used on gravestones. One of the most common interpretations considers the symbol to be the “Eye of God” watching over humankind and often means the deceased was a member of the fraternal order of Freemasons.
The final photograph has a couple of symbols – one fairly obviously represents the Tree of Life. The other “flower-like” symbol was intriguing and a mystery. After some searching, I discovered that the six-pointed star-like shape is called a hexfoil. Other common names for this symbol include daisy wheel and witch mark. Now, this was really interesting! Apparently, the use of hexfoils on gravestones goes back to the Roman Empire and may have existed before Christianity. According to a PhD student, whose website can be found here, “the use of a hexfoil could be viewed as intending protection for the soul of the deceased, protection for their earthly remains, or a bit of both. This use of magic made its way to the British Isles and throughout Europe, and eventually to the colonial settlements in North America.”
After browsing through several of these gravestone symbology websites, I am suitably hooked on learning more!
Fall is a great time to catch the morning and evening light reflecting colors. Interesting read on the memorial symbols so much history. These were taken at the First Parish Cemetery in York Maine.
Beautiful photos of the cemetery in Maine! We are near some very impressive cemeteries here in Vermont – due to our proximity to Barre, the “Granite Center of the World.” The Hope Cemetery in Barre has some of the most incredible examples of granite workmanship. I’ve not photographed there but maybe that should be a future photo shoot!
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