Interpreting the Stones
© 2009 by G.E. Anderson
…Going, but know not where…*
Phineas G. Wright
Died 1918, aged 89
A cemetery is where life’s final declarations are made. Whether it’s political, historical, or nose-thumbing, tombstones and their inscriptions can show a range of non-conformity surprising to most visitors.
Some declarations are easily interpreted, such as the bird lover,
the deep-sea diver, or even the hour glass of time.
Yet, while the implied, “Time Flies, Remember You Must Die,” is a reminder of finite earthly life, hourglasses also have a less obvious implication. They can be inverted, thus symbolizing the cyclic nature of life and death, heaven and earth.** Pushed further, an hourglass can even represent reincarnation.
And then there are carvings so old, a reference guide is required to read them. Two examples from Sunnyside Cemetery, a pioneer cemetery established in 1865 on Whidbey Island, are shown below.
The handshake symbol can represent a few meanings. If the hands and sleeves can be differentiated, where one is masculine and the other feminine, this is a symbol of matrimony. If the hands appear gender neutral, the representation can be taken as either an earthly farewell or a heavenly welcome.**
The second example dates back to when flowers and vegetables had a language all their own. Here is a rather motley arrangement that makes sense only when the meanings are revealed. Corn represents fertility and rebirth, the ferns are a symbol of humility, frankness and sincerity while bellflowers show constancy and gratitude**. All come together to symbolize the particular character and personality of one now gone.
Some of the more poignant memorials in any cemetery are for children. Typically, a lamb, cherubim, or an empty chair holding small shoes can indicate the loss of a child while in the Jewish tradition, those children who do not live to their naming, are marked by simple stones.
Other examples can seem a little too morbid to modern eyes, such as this fallen bird memorial dedicated to 9-year old Edward Ellison Ebey in Sunnyside Cemetery.
Died in Stanstead, Quebec August 28, 1864
He went into voluntary banishment from his
Beloved native country during the reigning terror
In the third year of misrule of
Abraham the First*
One frequently overlooked influence in any cemetery is its tie to area history. Whether it be the wide expansive fields at Gettysburg, the rare anti-Lincoln inscription noted above, or Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, a visit to the old section in any local graveyard is sure to turn up something fascinating and Seattle is certainly no exception.
Logging has long been part of this city’s past and several local graveyards reflect this heritage in the tombstones from Woodmen of the World. The organization was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root after hearing a sermon about “…pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families“. One of the enduring physical legacies of this organization may be the number of distinctive headstones erected in the shape of a tree stump. It was an early benefit of membership and these headstones are found in cemeteries all across the nation and in the older cemeteries here in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, this practice was abandoned in the 1920s for being too expensive.**
The first example is located in one of Seattle’s earliest cemeteries established in the late 1890s, Comet Lodge. It is a realistic memorial cut to stand approximately five feet in height while the three below are more modern examples found in Lakeview Cemetery. They are considerably smaller and typically adorned with an ax, wedge and beetle (a heavy mallet), representing not only the tools of the trade, but also the metaphors for industry, power and progress.
Comet Lodge Cemetery may demonstrate the physical difficulty of early life in Seattle but Bikur Cholim, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Seattle, offers a few symbolic visions of its own.
From left to right, one can see the Levite’s pitcher used to clean the hands of the Temple priest prior to services, to the ram’s head signifying the binding of Isaac (or the shofar, a horn blown to wake those from their complacency) as well as the Tree of Life.
And then the unsuspecting visitor encounters something vaguely familiar in a memorial to a Cohen…
Lynn Gottlieb, a gabbai at Congregation Beth Shalom, explains there is a certain point in an Orthodox Jewish service when a Cohen will stand to bless the congregation. The hands are raised to form an opening to direct the radiance of God downward. Most secular visitors are also familiar with this blessing, but in the radically different context known as “Star Trek” where Leonard Nimoy intones his famous line, “Live long and prosper….”
Of course, there are stones that need no explanations, especially in any city where prime real estate can be difficult to obtain. However, according to Helen Mathers, not all is lost. Her memorial overlooks a sweeping panorama in Lakeview Cemetery and simply states: “A view at last.”
Note: The author would like to thank Andrea Ptak, Lisa Costantino and Lynn Gottlieb for their suggestions, time and advice for this article
To see further examples of people making a permanent statement, check out The Secret Garden and another unusual cemetery story here.
*Epitaphs to Remember: Remarkable Inscriptions from New England Gravestones by Janet Greene
** “Stories in Stone; a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography” by Douglas Keister
***Modern Woodmen of the World.