In 1831, a unique graveyard was created in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Mount Auburn Cemetery displayed fences, flowers, benches, bridges, trees, and ponds. Grave markers, once foreboding reminders of eternal judgment, were elaborately carved works of art. Mount Auburn heralded the transition from stark burying grounds to park-like cemeteries, which flourished after the Civil War and spread rapidly throughout Ohio and across the Midwest during the Victorian era.
The war’s human destruction – the deaths of some 600,000 soldiers and the crippling of thousands more – left Americans in the grip of grief, reeling in a world gone out of control. Religious promises offered little comfort in the wake of such human loss. Many turned away from traditional attitudes toward death.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ 1868 novel The Gates Ajar brought many Americans the psychological and spiritual comfort they so desperately needed. In an effort to reconcile herself to her brother’s death at the Battle of Antietam, Phelps created a vision of heaven nearly identical to that of the earthly home. It became the second best selling book of the 19th century. Only Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more popular.
In an effort to defy death’s oblivion, Victorians no longer thought of cemeteries as burying grounds, but rather as serene resting places for sleeping loved ones. Indeed, the word “cemetery” derives from the Greek “koimeterion,” meaning “a large dormitory where many people sleep” - in one mourner’s words - “a heavenly home on earth.” Grave markers in the form of cradles, beds, chairs, draperies, baskets, settees, pets, and toys helped grieving families re-imagine death as peaceful slumber and heaven as an extension of home where they would be reunited with lost loved ones.
Other markers used symbols whose meanings were commonly understood by Victorians. For example clasped hands represented unity and lambs reflected innocence. Symbolic expressions helped Victorians reaffirm the traditional values and standards of their time: beauty, serenity, order, individual identity, and respect for departed loved ones.
These symbols in stone - lambs, open books, rose buds with broken stems, angels, tree trunks, doves, clasped hands, and anchors - remain a part of the physical landscape of our cemeteries today. Much of their meaning has been lost to time, but for Victorians these messages in stone were clear. They spoke to the heart. They were part of the healing process that helped Victorians pick up the pieces of their broken lives and regain a sense of control and stability in a world shattered by war.
Oak leaves: Strength of faith (men)
Palm leaves: Salvation of the soul
Ivy: Steadfastness of faith
Lily, Lilies of the valley: Purity, innocence (exclusively female children; unmarriedwomen)
Rose bud with broken stem or two roses and a bud (indicating parent and child):Love and beauty of the soul and the life lived (child)
Roses in full bloom: Similar meaning (adults, often women)
Overturned basket of roses or flowers: Death
Weeping willow (often used with urn, plinth, or lamb): Death and mourning, partly because the willow was thought to look sad. Some references state is the willow is cut down it will send up new sprouts symbolizing rebirth.
Tree trunk abruptly cut off: Ended life. Height may indicate age of deceased.
Grape cluster (s): Ripe and ready for harvest by God (mature person)
Bundled sheaf of wheat: Harvesting of a fully matured soul and exchange of life of pain and suffering for a life where God would wipe away all tears (elderly)
Lamb: Purity, innocence (child)
Angels: Messenger of death or symbolized returning the soul back to heaven.Sometimes the soul in the angel's arms was the actual image of the deceased.
Open book: Book of Life containing the good and bad deeds of the deceased.
Closed book: Finality of life
Open book with blank pages: Final acts of life have been written
Sickle or scythe (with or without sheaf of wheat): Revelations 14:18: "Thrust in thy sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe". (adults)
Forefinger pointing up: Soul has gone to heaven
Forefinger pointing down or hand reaching down: God's hand is lifting the soul up to heaven
Clasped hands: Eternal unity of husband and wife, Clergy's blessing on the soul, God's welcome to eternal life, or the fellowship of a lodge.
Clocks and watches: Often show the hour of death
Hourglass: Ancient symbol of life and death
Winged hourglass: Sands of time have run out and the soul is flying to heaven
Empty cradle or chair: Symbolized the loss of an individual
Broken column: Life has ended
Classical Greek column: Symbol of death
Obelisk: An Egyptian symbol and to Victorians anything Egyptian was automatically associated with death
Broken link in a chain: Loss of family member (not to be confused with the IOOF lodge symbol of three links)
Dove: Winged messenger of God
Dove flying upward with a broken-stemmed rosebud in its beak: Death of a child
Dove with an anchor: Indicates the soul is anchored safely in God's harbor
Dove with olive branch or riband (ribbon) in its beak (usually labeled "rest in peace"):Indicates peace to the soul of the deceased.