Friday, October 24, 2014

Tombstone Tales

            Headstones are the traditional markers for graves of people from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures. In most cases they have the name of the deceased, their birth date, date of their death, and sometimes a piece of funerary art. Funerary art can be specific to an individual person, to a region, but often is non-specific and capable of relating to many regions and cultures.
            The dove is the most represented animal symbol on tombstones and is most often seen carrying an olive branch. This is a reference to the biblical story of Noah who released the dove in hopes that it would find land in the popular Noah’s Ark tale. Over time the dove has come to represent purity, peace, and the Holy Ghost. The dove is also a symbol of the highest degree of a Knight of Columbus, a fraternal organization for Catholics.
This imagery is popular all around the country and can even be seen in Geary County. We found two gravestones in Highland Cemetery that highlight doves, and one each in Saint Mary’s and Fairfield Cemeteries, we're sure there are many more. One of the doves in Highland cemetery, on the gravestone of Margaret, wife of Andrew Languein, is an inverted dove below a cross. The gravestone is traditionally shaped in a pointed oval known as a Norman headstone.
The dove in St. Mary’s cemetery sits atop the square headstone of Robert L. (1900-01). This imagery strays from tradition associated with children’s graves as they are usually decorated with lambs, as illustrated by an unmarked site in Highland Cemetery. The lamb is known to represent the Lamb of God in Christian art and is tied to springtime renewal in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures. Christ is often depicted as a shepherd, but is also referred to as the lamb, or child, of God. Using this imagery on a gravestone symbolizes that the deceased person is too a child of the Christian God.
Another very popular symbol that has marked many graves over the years is clasped or shaking hands. Hands have many different meanings, but when the hands are clasped together this is a symbol of matrimony, a heavenly welcome, or an earthly farewell. The distinction between the three meanings comes from the cuffs around the wrists of each hand. If one of them appears feminine and the other masculine then we see this as a symbol of matrimony, but if the cuffs are gender neutral then this is seen as a symbol of a heavenly greeting or earthly farewell. This is a very popular symbol and is found all around the country and we have several examples here in Geary County. One of these examples can be found in Highland cemetery on George Kilian’s grave. The cuffs on these hands are gender neutral, and the grave is of a single person, which suggests that this symbol refers to the heavenly welcome or earthly farewell.
            Another set of clasped hands can be found on Robert Hunter’s gravestone in Highland cemetery. In early Christian art the depiction of God was forbidden due to an interpretation of the fourth commandment which stated that “You shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Exodus 20:4). However the hand was used to represent the presence of God, which was permitted. Showing clasped hands is a way to symbolize the deceased being close with God in the afterlife, or saying goodbye to their earthly family.
           A gravestone can tell a very wide variety of stories about the deceased person. Many of these images can be seen all around the country while others are region specific, and still others are specific to individual people. A stone marks their final resting place and it is meant to represent their life, usually through images relating to their life in the church. If this topic interests you, Lori Halfhide will be at the museum on November 1st at 1:30pm giving a Tombstone Talk!