The jury’s still out: Did Leonardo da Vinci really incorporate secret codes into his artwork? Scholars likely will debate that mystery for decades to come. Meanwhile, your own cryptographic riddles await you in your ancestors’ burial grounds.
You’ve probably noticed the symbols carved on gravestones. But have you ever stopped to think what that skull and crossbones really means? Was your ancestor a pirate? Did he die from poisoning?
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Harvard symbologist like The Da Vinci Code’s Robert Langdon to crack your ancestors’ cryptic codes. Just study our eight-step gravestone guide, and you’ll become an expert at interpreting headstone art. You’ll also learn more about your deceased relatives than you ever thought possible.
Step 1: Headstone hunting
Stop by your local cemetery and look at the artwork carved on the headstones. Don’t worry if you don’t know the inhabitants there. Your initial goal is to familiarize yourself with the types of symbols on tombstones, not the people buried beneath them.
Take notes (and pictures if you have a digital camera). If you’re good at drawing, copy some of the artwork you see. Also record death dates, as you’ll later notice correlations between certain symbols and eras in history. The variety of cryptic emblems and insignia might surprise you. Try to find at least a dozen examples.
When you get home, pull out any pictures of your ancestors’ grave sites. Repeat the exercise described above: Note the art and the death dates, as well as the states or regions where the graves are located. Do you see any similarities between your ancestors’ headstones and those in the cemetery you just visited?
Step 2: Translating tombstone art
Symbology, the practice of expressing oneself through symbols, is as old as humankind. Before developing written languages, people drew figures on cave walls to communicate with one another and to record things they didn’t want to forget. Today, we use symbols on our roadways, in daily correspondence (think of the ubiquitous smiley face), throughout restaurant and lodging guides, and lots of other places. Just as you’ve come to know and understand these marks, now it’s time to learn what your ancestors were trying to communicate through their funerary figures.
A word of caution before we get started, though: Tombstone scholars still debate the meanings of certain symbols, so you could find varying interpretations. Our cheat sheet at left will get you started learning the significance of some common symbols. See the resources on page 50 for additional marks and their meanings.
Step 3: Understanding visions of death
If you have pictures of tombstones from different parts of the country, you’ll notice regional symbols that evolved as attitudes toward death changed. For instance, the winged death head (a skull with wings), most commonly seen on the graves of New England colonists, is one of the earliest cemetery art forms in America. The Puritans viewed death in its stark reality: It was part of their daily lives, and they believed their salvation was never certain. They had little regard for physical remains, and hastily buried loved ones with minimal ceremony. Although the Puritans grieved privately, they deemed public expressions of sadness inappropriate.
Harriette Merrifield Forbes, author of Gravestones of Early New England, and the Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800, has grouped Colonial and early American symbols from New England into five categories, according to their significance:
• recognition of the flight of time
• the certainty of death and warnings to the living
• the occupation of the deceased or his station in life
• the Christian life
• the resurrection of the body and the activities of the redeemed soul
Step 4: Checking vital stats
Of course, grave markers have a more practical function than memorializing the deceased: They tell you who’s buried where. Some markers offer nothing more than the person’s name and death date. More-elaborate stones may give the date of birth, places of birth and death, age at death, parents’ and spouse’s names, and a verse (known as the epitaph). Some even provide a mini biography of sorts, telling you when and where the person migrated and what he or she did for a living.
After the death date, you’ll often see a person’s age written this way: “Died March 25, 1846, aged 37 years, 3 months and 15 days.” To determine the birth date, use an online calculator: You’ll find two such tools at <www.longislandgenealogy.com/ birth.html> and <www.olivetreegenealogy.com/ misc/birthcalc.shtml>.
Step 5: Reading epitaphs
Like funerary art, epitaphs carved on gravestones reveal changing outlooks on death. Colonial verses were meant to provide instruction, not comfort. Here’s a common warning to the living:
Stranger, stop and cast an eye,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you shall be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
Just as tombstone art has evolved from death’s heads to willows and urns, epitaphs have changed from messages of doom and gloom to those of grief, happiness and hope.
Epitaphs typically reflect living relatives’ feelings toward the deceased, as survivors would select verses from monument makers’ and funeral directors’ catalogs. Occasionally, people would specify what they wanted on their tombstones — such pre-selected epitaphs tend to reflect the decedents’ personalities.
Generally, families have derived epitaphs from popular or favorite poems, other classic literary works such as Shakespeare’s, and holy scriptures or prayers. As Americans came to favor more-comforting verses, scripture passages and prayers for mercy became the most common types of epitaphs.
Step 6: Identifying the stone
By determining the headstone’s composition, you can tell if the marker at your ancestor’s grave is the original or a replacement. Before the 1650s, people used mostly fieldstones or rough-cut rocks to mark graves. A stone from this time might have the deceased’s initials and death year carved on it. From about the 1660s to 1850s, headstones consisted of sedimentary rock, such as red or brown sandstone or limestone, and dark slate. You’ll also see early 1800s gravestones made from a grayish-blue slate. Marble was the stone of choice between the 1830s and 1880s. Since the 1880s, we’ve stuck with granite headstones. That means a granite stone with a pre 1880 death date isn’t the original marker.
Step 7: Cleaning slate (and other rock)
To safely remove debris such as bird droppings, lichen and moss, use a soft nylon-bristle brush and plain water. Gently loosen and rub away as much debris as you can. If you find yourself applying pressure, it’s not wise to continue. Don’t use abrasives or chemicals to clean the stone, unless directed by a gravestone conservator or the monument maker.
Here’s one safe way to enhance the stone: Illuminate the image by using a mirror or a piece of cardboard wrapped in tin foil, shiny side out. Step a few feet away from the stone, and capture the sunlight in the mirror or foil, then reflect it onto the stone. You’ll be amazed at how well the image appears.
Also try making a rubbing of the stone (if the cemetery allows it). Use butcher paper or nonfusible interfacing fabric, wrapping it around the stone and securing it to the back with masking tape (or have a partner hold it). Then rub a peeled jumbo crayon over the paper or fabric to bring forth the image.
For additional safe gravestone-reading methods, go to <www.savinggraves.com/ education/bookshelf/alternative.htm>.
Creating a tombstone rubbing (left) can help you decipher and preserve an inscription. But you should never attempt a rubbing on a damaged, crumbling or unstable stone (right).
Step 8: Going beyond the grave
Just because ancestral details are carved in stone, that doesn’t mean you can trust them. It’s common to find mistakes on grave markers, since errors often cost too much to fix. Plus, most tombstones didn’t appear on the graves until several months, if not years, after the funerals. Families who could barely afford funeral costs put off buying a marker — sometimes until the other parent died, so they could memorialize both on the same headstone. For these reasons, you’ll need to verify the names, dates, places and any other details on a headstone using other sources, such as obituaries, death certificates, censuses and birth records.