Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Speaking in symbols from the grave

As genealogists, by nature, we all have a special affection for graveyards. To find a family plot, with everyone’s information and sometimes parents’ info, is a sort of adrenalin rush. When I first started visiting cemeteries, my family stones were pretty plain. I get so jealous sometimes when I see the clues that other families left behind for their descendants. I can almost hear my ancestors giggling. 

This Still family stone lists Person G. (1884-1977), Mary K. (1885–1916), Margaret (1908–1909), James (1910-1979), and Dorothy (1912-1912). Through deductive reasoning, even if I did not know who they were, one could reason that Pierson is the father and Mary, the mother. Since there is a flag with a military marker at the grave, one could surmise that James had served, which in fact he had. The stone is very plain, just like Pierson was in life. While you cannot tell from just looking at this stone, it cannot be the first, or at the very least, it was erected after their other son, my grandfather Lloyd, had married since he is not included. The stone also does not mention that Mary died in childbirth and her stillborn child is buried with her. Without any decoration of any kind on the stone, one can not – and should not – assume anything about the family. 

Most of my family members, who were in the military, did not have anything commemorative on their stones. However some use an anchor for the Navy. A castle may mean the deceased was with the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Southern Cross of Honor was used for Confederate Veterans. 

Organizations may offer much insight to our ancestors. It can also be a source of records and documentation, even if just residence and age. Three links in a chain symbolizes the Oddfellows, for example. A four leaf clover may indicate Irish roots; however, if there are Hs in the leaves, the meaning now changes to 4H Club. Corn and wheat may indicate a farmer.  

Daniel M Herr and his wife Naomi Wiggins Herr are buried at the Zion UCC Church in Providence, Lancaster County. There is a large family stone that identifies them as Herrs. The symbols on this smaller stone are Masonic. Daniel is a member of the Free & Accepted Masons. Naomi is an Eastern Star. A crown with a knight’s head (the helmet) and crossed swords indicates an affiliation with the Order of DeMolay. 

My great-great grandfather was a blacksmith. However his stone was very plain. Some symbols represent professions. For example an axe, joined with a knife and cleaver, may symbolize a butcher. A bowl and razor would indicate a barber. A chalice may indicate the person was a priest. A hammer and square may mean the deceased was a carpenter.  

Many people opt for a religious symbol. Crosses, angels, and lambs all indicate one final religious statement. Arches symbolize the door to salvation. The Bible is also often found on many Christian stones. Catholics may use rosary beads. Menorahs are indication of Judaism.  

My grandmother’s brothers, Michael J and Daniel J Welsh, are buried together near her at St. Patrick’s RC Cemetery in Kennett Square. The stone is simple but adorned with ivy and a cross in each top corner. The crosses are a Christian symbol for the Resurrection. In their case, they were Roman Catholic. The ivy symbolizes immortality or friendship.  

Some symbols are simply icons of death, mortality and grief. A broken column, for example, represents the loss of the head of the family. Doves may symbolize peace. 

People have erected tombstones for their loved ones since early Biblical days. The first mention of such a marker is one Jacob erected for Rachel (Genesis 35:20) when she died in childbirth. The Bible does not elaborate as to what the marker says or any etchings in it. Merely, we are told “Then Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.” 

Jacob set the pillar on her grave, just as we set markers on the graves of our loved ones. Thus tombstones are a way in which the dead may speak one final word.
Share YOUR thoughts
Have you thought what yours might say?


  1. I'm looking for William Welsh b. abt 1838 in PA. died 1913 Henry County, Iowa. Parent(s) from Ireland. He married Julia Rosnett but they divorced. Are we related?

  2. T - Our name was originally Walsh but there were so many others with the same surname (especially one "bad" family who was always confused with ours) that the family simply changed it to Welsh. Still, there were many Welsh in the Shenandoah area of PA as well. That said, I have not come across any family members who moved to Iowa.


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