Stories in Stone: A Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. By Douglas Keister. Hardbound, $24.95. Published by $24.99 from Gibbs Smith, P.O. Box 667, Layton, UT 84041; tel. 800-748-5439.

Review by James Pylant

Family historians know the familiar symbols they find on an ancestor’s grave marker—such as crosses for Christianity, six-pointed stars for Judaism, and the square and the compass for Masons—but what about other carvings or acronyms? Douglas Keister answers those questions in a beautiful book he has written and photographed entitled Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.

Called “America’s most noted photographer of historic architecture,” Keister presents a pictorial guide for those of us who make pilgrimages to the final resting places of our forebears to glean clues from tombstones. Our 19th-Century ancestors found security and fellowship by joining societies, clubs, and fraternal organizations. “Many societies provided a death benefit as part of their membership,” says the author, “ranging from a tombstone, to a plot in the organization’s cemetery, to a space in a community mausoleum.” Stories in Stone explains the codes, meanings, and the importance of more than 350 symbols, including a 24-page list of acronyms of societies, clubs, and organizations. Some examples are AHTA (Anti Horse Thief Association), BARE (Benefit Association of Railway Employees), GWS (Gospel Workers Society), and WFJ (Western Fruit Jobbers).

Images and carvings of animals are also found on tombstones. These have a variety of meanings. Lambs, for instance, often mark the graves of children, as a symbol of innocence. An ox might represent a humble person, one who bore the yoke of life and worked for the good of others. A dove, the most commonly portrayed animal symbol, speaks of purity and peace.

The human body is depicted in grave markers as well. Most commonly we encounter hands carved at the top of a stone, either coming down (representing the welcoming hand of God) or pointing upward (meaning the soul has risen to heaven). Clasped hands were frequently carved on the tombstones of our ancestors. “Look carefully at the sleeves,” notes author Keister. “One should appear feminine and the other masculine,” an indication of matrimony. But not always. “If the sleeves appear to be gender neutral, the hands can represent a heavenly welcome or an earthly farewell.”

Stories in Stone goes far beyond the examples discussed here. Photographs and narratives for mausoleums, tombs, sculptures, plants and flowers, fruits, grains, and vines, trees and bushes, and mortality symbols are presented. Douglas Keister’s photography for the 288-page book is stunning; his lens captured many unusual, if not bizarre, markers and memorials.

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