The first burial in what would become a shared grave for my Aunt Bronisława was made in 1912. Now, 94 years later, a monument will be erected on the grave. I have thought long and hard about how to design the monument for this grave. The questions I considered were:
- What iconography should be on the monument?
- Should the complete dates or just the years of birth and death be included on the monument?
- Should some prayer or other inscription be included?
- Should anything be written on the back of the monument?
the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts.
In reference to cemeteries, iconography usually refers to the images inscribed on tombstones and the meanings behind those images.
Modern iconography sometimes uses images that reflect important events or hobbies in the life of the deceased, such as the image of a pair of wedding rings or a picture of a man fishing. Modern iconography also extends to images of the deceased or images of the church they attended. A common icon for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) is a picture of the temple in Salt Lake City.
More traditional iconography, however, may require additional interpretation. Many older icons are seldom used today. A weeping willow signifies mourning; roses represent the brevity of life; oak leaves and acorns mean a ripe old age; butterflies represent an early death. An angel trumpeting indicates the resurrection, while an angel weeping means mourning. A bird represents eternal life, and a flying bird means resurrection.
Often, an icon can have different meanings for different persons. In one case, an anchor may be used to indicate hope, while in another case an anchor can mean that the deceased was a seaman. Specific types of trees can be used to mean different things: an apple tree represents love, a cypress tree means faithfulness, and an olive tree indicates wisdom.
And sometimes, the icons on a gravestone mean nothing at all. Someone may have selected an image simply because they liked the image.
In selecting the iconography and design for the monument for my Aunt Bronisława and the other two infants buried with her, I took into consideration the size limitations imposed by the cemetery and the style of the other monuments nearby.
Front of Monument
Because the information on three individuals could make the monument rather busy, I decided to keep the inscription simple (remember, this is a headstone for a single grave, not a grave intended for three people). I decided to include the name of each child followed by the years, not the entire dates, of birth and death. On the front I decided to include the icon of a lamb with a cross to symbolize the innocence of the children when they died and the Roman Catholic faith of the families. I also decided to include an inscription I had seen on many graves in Poland:
JEZU UFAMY TOBIE
meaning: Jesus, We Trust to You.
While the design is not finalized, I did receive the proofs of the design today. I made a few comments and expect to receive the revised proofs in a few days. I’m rather happy with the design.
For further information on cemetery iconography, check out:
- George Morgan’s article on Cemetery Iconography
- Tomb With a View’s Guide to Commemorative Motifs, Mourning Images, and Memento Mori
- Pam Reid’s Guide to Cemetery Art and Symbolism.
If a book-length work interests you, try:
- Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Iconography and Symbolism
- Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland
- Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815.
Finally, if you’d rather listen than read, check out the Halloween 2005 edition of The Genealogy Guys Podcast.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen J. Danko