Cemetery Iconography and Designing Bronisława’s Monument

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?

Iconography is:

the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts.

-Encyclopedia Brittanica Online

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. 

Monument Front

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.

Finally, I added the surnames of the three children to the back of the monument, so it could be easily found when approaching from either direction.Monument BackBack of Monument

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.

1For further information on cemetery iconography, check out:

If a book-length work interests you, try:

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

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7 Responses to Cemetery Iconography and Designing Bronisława’s Monument

  1. Cheryl Palmer says:

    Steve, as I hit the link to read your article, suddenly a lamb came to vision for me, and I was hoping you had chosen a lamb! Such a surprise when I saw the gravestone design! Most erie to me in fact. I think you have done a marvelous job, thinking out and designing the treasure you are about to give for these three children and future generations! Congratulations on pulling it together, it is awesome!

  2. Jasia says:

    What a kind, thoughful, and generous thing to do for these three children Steve. The gravestone is lovely. You’re a good man Charlie Brown.

  3. Barbara Poole says:

    This blog was very interesting, and I am pleased your plans are coming together with the stone. A lot has happened in less than a week! Your information regarding Iconography was appreciated on two levels, not only becauses I learned something, but your listing of books reminded me to check something out in Graven Images (forgot that my gg+++ father’s stone is in it, and I never used that book as a source). Your articles are filled with so much information, and I thank you.

  4. Carolyn Sidebottom says:

    Two thumbs up, Steve! Somehow I had a feeling you wouldn’t let this project die. Your plans are lovely!

  5. Thanks for all your kind comments! Today, I’m sending my final comments on the carving to the monument company. It’s nice to know this project will be complete soon. I’m also pleased that I could verify all the information on the monument with the birth and death records on file with the state.

  6. Barbara Giguere says:

    What a lovely stone. You are so good to do this for the children.

  7. Pingback: Aunt Bronisława’s Monument | Steve’s Genealogy Blog

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