The Tombstone Tourist: Deciphering the Secrets of Death and History with Robin Kring

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Note to reader: These are based on my notes from a talk given at the Brighton Library by Robin Kring

Introduction: When Death Meets Art

“You think you know, but you have no idea,” could very well be the tagline for the subject of tombstones. Joined by local Brighton history expert, Robin Kring, we embark on an exploration into the hidden symbols of tombstones.

Your Guide to the Tombstone Symbols

“We’re not just talking about headstones; we’re talking about stories,” Robin, a local historian, sets the stage. It’s more than just etchings on a slab of rock. The language of tombstones can be symbolic, almost poetic, and deeply entrenched in the historical contexts in which they emerged. So what exactly are these tombstones whispering in the wind?

The Language of Symbols

🌹 Floral Language: Jody’s story, for instance, involves the Victorian language of flowers. A rose with three leaves symbolizes the Holy Trinity, while its absence of thorns might represent the Virgin Mary, often referred to as the “Rose Without a Thorn.”

🎭 Iconography: From death heads to cherubs, the graphics have evolved. Each type carries its own hidden meanings, often providing a lens into the person’s life or era.

🎖️ Military and Societal Symbols: You’ll find unique symbols for military headstones, secret societies, and even the strange and mysterious.

More Than Meets the Eye

🧱 Stone Shapes: Even the shape of the tombstone can be telling. For example, a door-shaped tombstone can represent a portal to the afterlife.

🕶️ Personalized Touch: Then there are the modern, personalized symbols, unique to the individual, a visual epitaph of sorts.

Art and Architecture

🎨 Intricate Art: Often, tombstones are adorned with artistic symbols and sculptures. For instance, the new addition to Elmwood Cemetery is more than a simple headstone—it’s a piece of art.

🏛️ Classical Influence: Obelisks and urns, deeply rooted in Ancient Greece and Egypt, found their way into Victorian cemeteries for their clean lines, multiple sides for engraving, and overall aesthetic appeal.

Victorians: Trendsetters in Death

Why are the Victorians such a prominent part of this discussion? Not just a nod to aesthetics, these Victorians were onto something. They often chose symbols with dual purposes—visually appealing and deeply meaningful. The unfinished rocks at the base of many tombstones? They signify a life cut short, a poignant reminder of the impermanence of our existence.

The Mystery of Drapery

The Victorians had a knack for adding depth to even the simplest of symbols. Consider the draped urn. The fringe on the drapery denotes the veil between this life and the afterlife.

A Shift in Trends

It’s interesting to note that while urns symbolized cremation in ancient times, they were largely symbolic for the Victorians. But fast forward to today, and over 60% of cemetery interments are cremations.

The Art of the Ledger Stone: A Journey Through Symbols and Time

Bolster Markers and Floral Emblems

Continuing our exploration of the visual language of memorials, let’s talk about the bolster markers that bear a striking resemblance to bed pillows. Quite distinct in shape, these markers have made a mark (no pun intended) in cemeteries. 🌼Daisies embellish these markers and signify true love and innocence—fittingly so, considering daisies are also commonly found on children’s graves.

The Importance of Trim

The unfinished stone trim you see on ledger stones can be both poignant and beautiful. What might look unfinished to an unknowing eye is indeed a purposeful choice, lending these markers their particular aesthetic charm.

A Design as Unique as the Individual

In an act of linguistic homage, the term “Legion,” German for “to lie,” perfectly describes the stones’ design as they contour the shape of the bodies laid beneath. You can find these up to 6 feet in length, and their color palette varies, bringing to life an art form that imitates, in the most dignified way, the forms it commemorates.

The Bergman Family: A Legacy Etched in Stone

Now, consider the Bergmans, intimately connected to Bar Lake. Augusta Bergman and her baby lie next to each other under ledger stones. The coordination in design is staggering; Augusta’s stone is adorned with yellow tiles with blue accents, while her baby’s is its mirror opposite.

Symbolism in Abundance

Unfailing love, beauty, hope—every rose on these stones is an elegy in its own right. But it doesn’t stop at the flower. Oak leaves and acorns accompany the roses, representing virtue, faith, and the transition from youth to adulthood.

Unfortunate Events: The Case of the Stolen Rose

As lasting as these memorials are, they are not immune to desecration. Augusta’s rose was stolen after a hundred years of surviving weather and time, a testament to the need for better security measures in these sacred spaces. Elmwood has since installed cameras, but it’s a grim reminder of the vulnerability that comes with beauty.

Age-Old Symbols with Contemporary Relevance

Interestingly, the three rings symbolizing friendship, love, and truth appear on some ledger stones. These age-old markers date back to the time of the Puritans in Massachusetts but have evolved to suit the more modern aesthetic and spiritual demands. The transition from ‘death heads’ to cherubs, for instance, signifies a shift from a focus on mortality to a celebration of the afterlife.

A Spectrum of Meaning: Hands, Torches, and Doves

Other symbols like pointing hands or clasped hands indicate the deceased’s spiritual journey. Candles and torches are metaphors for the soul, while doves symbolize innocence and spiritual passage.

More Than a Final Resting place

Cemeteries are more than just final resting places; they are museums of personal stories told through intricate designs and carefully chosen symbols. Whether you’re walking past a bolster marker adorned with daisies or contemplating the symbolism behind a ledger stone, these spaces compel us to think deeply about life, death, and everything in between.

Diving Deeper into Grave Symbolism: A Journey Through American Cemetery History

The Union and Confederate Headstones

You might recall the gravestones of Union soldiers. Even if you don’t, here’s a tip to jog your memory: look for round tops. Yes, that’s right. A circle means Union; a point means Confederate. You can also find markers like the Confederate Cross of Honor to distinguish the sides. Now, is it true that Confederate headstones are pointed to deter Yankees from sitting on them? Whether folklore or fact, the feature stands out.

A Coin for Your Thoughts?

If you’ve ever found coins on a headstone and wondered about their significance, here’s the lowdown:

  • Penny: You visited the fallen soldier.
  • Nickel: You served with them in boot camp.
  • Dime: You served with them elsewhere.
  • Quarter: They died during service.

This monetary tribute is often reserved for military personnel but has expanded beyond that group.

Cultural and Societal Symbolism

From stones on Jewish headstones to secret society symbols like the Freemasons’ compass and square, gravestones can tell you a lot about a person’s cultural and spiritual leanings. Did you know that a cross inside a crown represents suffering followed by eternal reward? Or that a two-headed bald eagle symbolizes mankind’s dual nature?

The Legacy of Women of the World

Another captivating group is the Women of the World. They have a particular headstone design featuring broken tree stumps. Founded in 1897 to provide financial assistance upon death, particularly for widows, the group began with a hat-passing system that evolved into an insurance program.

Notorious Clubs and Their Symbols

Have you heard of the Sons of Silence motorcycle club? If you see one of their headstones, tread carefully; rumor has it they close cemeteries for their funerals due to the risk of “bullets and things.” One of their popular patches reads ITCOB, which can either mean “I Took Care of Business” or signal the murder of a rival gang member, depending on whom you ask.

The 1% Patch

Lastly, a striking symbol you’ll often see on these biker headstones is the “1%” patch. Initially implying outlaw status, some say it actually signifies riding all but three days of the year: Christmas, the birthday of the founder of Harley, and a mysterious third day yet to be agreed upon.

Action Steps

  1. Next time you visit a cemetery, take some time to observe the variety of symbols and reflect on their meanings.
  2. If you are a history buff or a cultural anthropologist, consider delving deeper into the history of grave symbolism.
  3. Start a discussion online or with friends about the value and implications of these symbolisms.

Curious Curations: Unearthing the Secrets of Tombstones

The Call to “Bill” and The Lumber Company Connection

Following our last discussion on the intrigue of the speaker’s discovery, the team comes to the decision to involve “Bill,” anticipating more mysteries to unfurl. Built over a lumber company, the location doesn’t present any immediate grim discoveries like bodies or headstones.

Tales from a Tombstone Hunter

Jody’s account adds color to the discussion. She recounts a day when a man alerted her about a tombstone discovery. Drawing on her past experience, Jody muses that however terrible her friends’ day may be, it can’t compare to stumbling upon an unearthed tombstone.

Private Property and Consent

The speaker subtly warns adventurers: ensure you’re permitted to be where you are. Crossing into private property without consent can lead to unwanted confrontations, something easily avoidable by asking for permission.

Tombstone Tales: The Outlaw and the Tragedy

The speaker shares a tragic story about an unmarked grave belonging to Red Barker, the son of the notorious Ma Barker gang. His wife shot him, believing her life was in danger. The anecdote underscores how social attitudes toward domestic abuse in the 1940s led to tragic outcomes, including her being declared criminally insane.

Did you know? A QR code exists that can direct you to this hard-to-find story, but it’s a grim tale that serves as a cautionary note for our modern times.

The Extraordinary Tombstone of Calissa

The intrigue doesn’t end here. On a trip to Michigan, the speaker discovers an awe-inspiring tombstone. Belonging to Calissa, this tombstone is an amalgamation of pieces from her collection, which range from a piece of the first Atlantic cable to artifacts from the Civil War and Revolutionary War.

Native American Spirit Houses

Taking a spiritual turn, the discussion moves to Native American spirit houses. These structures contain holes on the west side to let spirits exit to the other world, and they can even take a treasured item with them for the journey.

Grave Robbers and Morgue Safes

Finally, the speaker mentions a surprising element: morgue safes. Originating in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries, these were essentially cages around graves to protect them from grave robbers who sold corpses to anatomy schools.

The World Beyond the Headstones: A Guide to Cemetery Exploration

Cemetery Tours: A Gateway to the Past

Let’s address the elephant in the room: Why would someone want to tour a cemetery? Isn’t that macabre? You’d be surprised. Cemetery tours are not just about morbidity; they’re gateways to rich histories, captivating stories, and significant cultural heritage. As the speaker noted, organized cemetery tours often happen in October and September, bringing history enthusiasts together. While some of these tours are free, others may require a nominal fee.

Did you know? 🤔 Tours can offer a particularly comprehensive experience when accompanied by historical books that delve into the stories behind the graves. Imagine standing in front of a gravestone and reading a tale of tragedy or heroism that unfolded in the very spot where you stand. Intrigued yet?

The Digital Age of Grave Exploration

In today’s digital world, physical presence is no longer a requisite for cemetery tours. Platforms like Find a Grave and serve as extensive repositories. The speaker recommends a simple yet effective hack: on Find a Grave, instead of inserting a specific name in the search field, simply click ‘Find.’ This reveals all the graves in a particular cemetery, giving you the luxury of exploring them at your convenience.

📌 Really Good Question (RGQ): Could digital exploration of cemeteries change the way we interact with history? What are we gaining or losing in this transition?

Cemetery Etiquette: The Unspoken Rulebook

There’s an unspoken etiquette in cemeteries that resonates with our basic human decency. We must remember that we are in someone’s final resting place, a sacred ground where a family’s love and memories are enshrined. The speaker advises against walking over headstones and encourages visitors to respect the space as if it were someone’s backyard.

Also, consider the safety element. The grounds can be uneven and, occasionally, headstones may sink, posing the risk of tripping. This underscores the need to wear sturdy shoes and, ideally, explore in pairs.

To Rub or Not to Rub?

A practice often performed on historical graves is ‘rubbing’, where a paper is pressed against a headstone, and a crayon or soft pencil is used to rub over it, creating a sort of imprint. However, be cautious: while it may provide a personalized keepsake, the activity can also cause disintegration of the headstone over time. Always check with cemetery rules before engaging in this practice.

Takeaways and Future Adventures

Cemetery exploration may seem like an eccentric hobby, but for history enthusiasts, writers, and curious souls, it serves as an unusual yet insightful way to understand the lives that preceded us.

💡Actionable Steps:

  1. Plan a cemetery visit during an organized tour or use digital platforms for remote exploration.
  2. Respect cemetery etiquette and always prioritize safety.
  3. Consider doing a rubbing of a historical gravestone but check the rules first.

Have you ever toured a cemetery for its historical value? What are your thoughts on this offbeat yet enlightening endeavor? Let us know in the comments below or catch me on my chat for a lively discussion!

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