Symbolism and iconography

Cemeteries are full of symbolism.

I find it fascinating and love trying to decipher the symbols and iconography I find. Symbolism can be found adorning tombstones and mausoleums. These symbols can range from simple designs to very elaborate ones. The meaning of symbols is a language in itself, and you can tell a lot about a person by what is on their tombstone. Religion, hobbies, clubs, and organizations can all be found represented, among other things, by symbols and icons within a cemetery.

Whenever I spot a symbol I have not seen before, I always turn to my handy reference books. If I can’t find what I am looking for there, the internet is the next best place to look. My go-to reference book is Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Douglas Keister. I have had this book forever, and always go back to it when I see something new. It’s a very in-depth look at what can be found in a cemetery. It covers architecture, sculpture, symbols, as well as acronyms and initials. I highly recommend it!

I recently added another reference book to my library – Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A field guide for historic graveyards by Tui Snider. I have just started getting into this one and I can tell right away it will be a great resource. It has some really in-depth sections on hand symbology as will as crosses and even statuary.

So what kind of symbols and iconography can you find in your local cemeteries? For the most part religious symbology is very common. Below are some examples of more common and not so common symbols you can find in Canadian cemeteries:

I love finding hands on a tombstone. Hands are shown in many different forms; pointing downward, pointing up, shaking hands, etc. the list goes on! And all of these different positions have different meanings. One of my favorite examples of hands was found in Terrace Lawn Cemetery in North Bay. These stones have weathered beautifully. This hand is pointed downward, with a finger extended which can symbolize God reaching down to collect a soul. The extended finger can mean sudden or unexpected death. This hand is also holding a chain. A broken link in the chain can represent a family or marriage broken by death.

Terrace Lawn Cemetery, North Bay ©2019

Lambs are a very common sight in cemeteries. These are sometimes accompanied by a tree stump, implying a life cut short. The Lamb itself represents “the lamb of God” and innocence. Sadly, lambs are almost always found at the grave of a young child or infant.

Whitefish Public Cemetery ©2021

Skulls are very rare to come by in my local Canadian cemeteries. I have only found 2 in all of my local travels, but I am always on the look out for them. They are more commonly found in other places of the world, like the United States and Europe. Most obviously a skull represents death. A skull found at the base of a cross is thought to be symbolic of the skull of Adam.

St. Thomas Cemetery, Warren ©2009

I have many great examples of symbols and iconography in my photography. If you are interested in seeing more and learning about their meanings, I share them every Friday on Instagram and Facebook.

I would also love to hear about the symbols you have found on your cemetery travels. Please share in the comments!

Mini Cemetery road trip

I wrote a post last week reminiscing about cemetery road trips. It may have been a bad idea as it made me want to plan one even more! 

This year, just like last, I have been spending a lot of time with my Mom. We have been visiting different local walking trails as something to see and do while we are in lockdown due to COVID-19. This year we have started visiting provincial parks that are close by to visit their hiking trails. This gave me an idea!

Why not stop at local cemeteries that are along the way or close to our destination? And so the mini road trip was born!

My Mother is fairly used to me making pit stops on the way to our hiking trails, but this past weekend, I deliberately drove out of my way to visit 2 cemeteries. I did a bit of research and found the addresses of 2 cemeteries I have been wanting to visit for a long while now. 1 in Britt and 1 in Byng Inlet. An old co-worker of mine told me about a very old and interesting cemetery in Byng Inlet that I should visit. This was several years ago. It just happens to be across the river from Britt, and another cemetery I have wanted to visit for a while as well. 

We drove to Byng Inlet first with the plan of visiting Britt and Grundy Lake Provincial Park as we made our way back towards home. We enjoyed the drive and I was pleasantly surprised by what we found.

In Byng Inlet, we found Magnetawan Cemetery which looked to be a small family cemetery, as well as 2 very old cemeteries. Sitting right on the side of the highway sits the cemetery of Saint John the Divine (1911-1931) and beside it, the cemetery of St. Andrew’s presbyterian church (1911-1924). Both of these cemeteries are partially hidden by the wild forest that has sprouted up around them. I was only able to find one stone at the cemetery of St. Andrew’s presbyterian church. It was an obelisk-style stone, that had sadly fallen to the ground. The cemetery of Saint John the Divine had about 10 stones that I was able to find, including 1 military grave. I was very excited by this find. 

Cemetery of Saint John the Divine 1911-1931, Byng Inlet, Ontario ©2021

In Britt, we stopped at a small cemetery across from a small white church – the Britt Holy Family Church Cemetery. This small little cemetery, on the bank of a river, holds a mix of old and modern stones. The oldest stone we found was a family grave. Capt. Peter Archabel McIntosh, who drowned at the Bustard Island in 1906, and his wife Lillie Clovetier who passed away in 1905.

Britt Holy Family Church Cemetery, Britt, Ontario ©2021

After realizing that that was not the cemetery I was looking for, we traveled a bit farther and found not 1 but 2 more cemeteries; the Britt and area community cemetery and the Holy Family Roman Catholic New Cemetery. That made a total of 6 cemeteries we visited that day.

We walked among the stones for a little while, while I snapped away with my camera. Interestingly enough, there is a campground adjacent to the Holy Family Roman Catholic New Cemetery, filled with RV’s and trailers – with some of them backed up right against the cemetery. 

After our cemetery visits, we headed to Grundy lake to stop for a picnic lunch and then go for a hike through their Swan Lake trail. It’s a beautiful trail and was a great way to end our adventures that day. 

I think this trip may have started a new tradition of cemetery visits, picnic lunches, and hiking trails. I mean it’s not a bad way to spend time outside during a pandemic.