There’s no question that grave markers are an invaluable resource for birth and death dates, full names, and family connections. However, when we try to tell a person’s story, we often over look them or give them only passing attention. We look for something more dynamic than a cold stone to illustrate someone’s personal history.
But grave markers are more than a resource. They’re a memorial to a life that has passed. And many times, if you listen and observe closely, they also tell a story.
My friend John Kingston put it well in his post The Stories beneath Us.
These are the monuments of people who have lived and died; some a century or two before you; others so recent that the patch of sod hasn’t yet taken root. Entire lifespans reduced to a nameplate and maybe even a phrase or two.
Ever go to a cemetery and notice several graves of individuals who were contemporaries in close proximity to each other? It makes you wonder. Are there stories there? Where they women who attended the same church, raised children together, quilted together, and reminisced together in their sunset years? Did the men go off to war together? Time to start asking questions!
Walking through an old cemetery, it’s easy to spot the graves of prominent community members. Rather than a simple headstone, there’s a statue or memorial. Some families may even have their own mausoleum or an area of the cemetery. That too, is the beginning of a story. Was that wealth passed down over generations or was there an identifiable period when prosperity hit? Were they some of the original settlers of the community?
Carvings and Epitaphs
As public cemeteries emerged in the 19th century, grave markers became a popular way to memorialize deceased family members. Grievers left their marks—sometimes with a simple epitaph; other times with elaborate carvings. They’re worth paying attention to. The choices the families made are the murmurings of stories.
Here the interests of the genealogist and the family storyteller intersect. The symbols on gravestones often reveal a person’s religious, fraternal, and professional affiliations. For instance, a dog can represent fidelity. Graveaddiction.com has great photos and explanations.
Understanding the historical context of these symbols can help you understand the lives of ancestors. For instance, I once saw a hand pointing down on a grave. I was relieved to read that this is thought to be the hand of God reaching down from Heaven—not an indication of which way the deceased was headed for his afterlife.
There’s another reason that gravestones can tell stories that other records might leave out. Especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or sudden death, families make decisions on the fly. Carving, however, takes more time, making it easier for families to put more thought into the grave markers.
I know when my sister and I ordered our parents’ headstone, we put a lot of thought into symbolism of the places they loved.
Incorporating Grave Markers into Family Stories
Even if you’re not interested in genealogy yourself, preserving and passing down grave marker information and photographs is a great service to future family researchers. Pay it forward!