(Written by Flora L VerStraten, Cemetery Chair in the spring of 2004)

With Memorial Day (Decoration Day) just passing to the 4th of July through the end of the summer to Labor Day, many of the area cemeteries receive visits, and flowers are placed on our countless family plots.  Recently I have spent more than my fair share of time touring the Jefferson County cemeteries. Sometimes researchers spend so much time seeking the names of those on the tombstones, that we overlook what else a record or resource, in this case a tombstone, can tell.  In addition to being a source of in our quest for information about our ancestors, I have found that tombstones often are works of art, that offer a glimpse into the life of the individual who is gone. Of course if we are always in a hurry, dashing from one record to another, we often miss the chance to get to know the person through their tombstone.

When you think about it, many of the tombstones that mark the final resting-place of our ancestors are works of art. The carved images practically come to life from the intricacy and detail. Some people visit cemeteries just to see these beautiful statues and stones.  Most of the imagery on a tombstone carries with it religious significance.  Some of the images found on tombstones include the following:

  • Flying angel: rebirth, resurrection
  • Weeping angel: grief and mourning
  • Crown: the glory of life after death
  • A hand or finger pointing up- pathway to heaven

A Window to a Life

While the imagery of angels and crowns was prevalent in earlier centuries, I have seen a trend in the types of things found on markers of today.  Many of them include something about the person such as; fishing gear and boats, racecars, pet etchings etc. I have seen poems and stories about the deceased.  One of the best ways to keep these windows is to take a picture and preserve the stone in time.  I know many take digital photos and check the images before leaving the cemetery.

Community Involvement

One of the most prevalent additions to tombstones and markers that I have seen is that of fraternal organizations or similar groups.  Identifying these insignias offer insight into the beliefs of your ancestor, perhaps even identifying his or her religion, and can offer other avenues for record searching. The most common fraternal organizations are that of the Freemasons. Others include, Odd fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Woodmen (tree stump style tombstones) and the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal organization). Another insignia that you may find is that of the Grand Army of the Republic. Such an insignia indicates that your ancestor fought for the Union during the Civil War and is often placed beside the headstone and appears in the shape of a shield, made of metal. These were often painted red, white and blue orginally.  The United Confederate Veterans has a similar insignia for those who fought for the South.

In Conclusion

Our ancestors did not want to be forgotten, nor did those they left behind wish to forget. The tombstones and markers reflect this enduring remembrance. The stones and markers were placed there because our ancestors or their family wanted us to know special things about them.  Remember that a tombstone is much more than a source for the date or birth or death!