Grave markers tell their own stories- DNR historian explains meaning behind symbols on gravestones

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Published on June 21, 2017 with No Comments

Jeannie Regan-Dinius, an historian with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, fields questions following a presentation on cemeteries and gravestone symbols June 12 at the Hobart branch library.

For an historian working for the state, Jeannie Regan-Dinius has had to brush up on her religion, especially when it comes to cemeteries and grave markers. Much of the symbolism on gravestones, Regan-Dinius said recently, is a reflection of several factors, including ethnicity and religious faith.

Regan-Dinius is director of special initiatives for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. Having visited cemeteries around the globe, she discussed the meaning behind those mysterious symbols on grave markers June 12 at the Hobart branch library.

This gravestone at Chester Cemetery in Ross Township features the hands-clasping sculpting, symbolic of a long-lasting relationship, including marriage. Jeannie Regan-Dinius, an historian with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, discussed cemeteries and grave markers June 12 at the Hobart branch library

In this country’s early days, Regan-Dinius said, the Puritan influence was very evident in cemeteries. The Puritan mindset, the historian-genealogist said, was that “God was going to get you, and get you good,” which was reflected in markers showing death taking a soul into heaven or a candle, for a life being snuffed out.

Early Indiana graves, Regan-Dinius, reflected farmers relying more on words than symbols. Made from whetstone, these early Hoosier graves were very legible because, though being soft, whetstone holds up well.

As sections of the country developed, people established churches, leading to church cemeteries and people being buried – and excluded – by religion.

Several grave markers at Hobart Cemetery feature trees or tree stumps. These designs, usually of a cut tree, symbolize a life cut short.

Grave markers can be identified by religion through their unique symbols. A Jewish gravestone might include the Star of David or a menorah. A Christian marker might feature a cross or I.H.S., a Christogram for Iesus Hominum Salvator, Latin for Jesus, Savior of Mankind.

Other religious artwork includes an anchor, symbolizing Jesus, and a lamb, also for Jesus, the Lamb of God. “Ninety-nine percent of the graves with a lamb are for a child, from infant to teen,” Regan-Dinius noted, adding that she has seen adult graves with a lamb sculpture.

Some faiths also use an open Bible, symbolizing the Book of Life.

A popular religious symbol, Regan-Dinius said, is the angel. As a messenger from God, the angel can be depicted taking the deceased to heaven. However, the mourning angel is also very popular, with the winged figure (often with a female face) depicted as actually weeping over the grave.

Getting away from religion, Regan-Dinius focused on the impact of pop culture, including the use of plant life. Ivy, she said, represented eternal love or a long marriage. Flower buds might be used on a young person’s grave. A weeping willow on a gravestone, Regan-Dinius said, means “the tree will mourn forever.”

In the German culture, Regan-Dinius explained, the use of a yucca plant “keeps the soul in the ground.” Wheat, she added, reflects a “life harvested.”

A popular tradition among people of Eastern European descent through the 1930s was the inclusion of ceramic photos of the deceased.  With the advancement of archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries, people began including Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian symbols on gravestones – from columns to pyramids to obelisks.

At a time when people belonged to lodges and secret societies, grave markers included symbols or acronyms of groups including Odd Fellows Clubs, Masons, Shriners, and Knights of Columbus.

Other popular non-religious symbols include the clasping of hands (usually symbolizing a lasting relationship continued in the afterlife) and the burial cloth, or pall. Also used is a marker shaped like a tree stump. The stump is cut, Regan-Dinius said, reflecting a life cut.

In modern times, for those who can afford it, life-size statues of the deceased, sometimes shown playing their favorite sport, adorn cemeteries.

“Today,” Regan-Dinius said, “it’s about me and what I want everyone to know about me.”

She cited the grave marker for the Irsay family, owners of the Indianapolis Colts. That marker predominantly features the Colts’ horseshoe logo. Another example, one sent to Regan-Dinius, has a parking meter adjoining the marker. The meter fittingly reads: “Time expired.”

Technology has also entered the gravestone business, and computer imaging has almost completely replaced stone carvers of the past. Granite, being a hard stone, can take a laser cut showing everything from a family’s camper to someone’s passion for fishing.

As Regan-Dinius concluded, there’s more to gravestones “than death dates and birth dates.”

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