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.

Cemetery road trips – Sault Ste Marie edition

I have been thinking about road trips a lot lately.

During a normal year, my friends and I would be discussing plans for our next one. I have been itching to research locations and plan travel routes. But alas, just like last year, it looks like it will not be happening this year.

Cemetery road trips are one of my favorite things to do in the summer months. We all would pile into one vehicle, chit-chat, and listen to music while cruising along to our cemetery spots. We usually pick a city or town and stop at all the cemeteries along the way. After visiting the cemeteries within that city’s limits we would also explore the outskirts, sometimes finding hidden cemeteries that we didn’t find in our research. These are great ways to spend time together, make memories and explore our backyard!

Bruce Mines Cemetery ©2019

The last road trip we did was in 2019. We visited Sault Ste Marie. Normally this trip would only be about a 3-hour drive, but it took us a whopping 6 hours! We made so many stops along the way and took our time exploring. We visited some very old cemeteries, full of the history of the town, as well as some newer ones. Lots of discoveries were made, including one of the largest cemeteries I have ever visited before! We visited 11 cemeteries in total that day. We didn’t beat our record, but it was a very good attempt! Our record so far is 13!

We also took some time to do some sightseeing, and visit some of the history museums there; the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre and the Ermatinger Old Stone House. We heard some interesting ghost stories from the staff at the Old Stone house and it prompted some interesting discussion and exploration while we were there. We did not find any ghosts though. It’s a beautiful house with some really interesting history. Getting in some sightseeing was a bonus for that trip.

We have also gotten into the tradition of visiting any Starbucks that we can find, and always end the day at the local Casey’s for supper. A favorite restaurant that we no longer have in our own city. It’s a great cap to the day, followed by a much quicker drive home while we debrief on the fun and experiences of the day.

So for this year, instead of grand travel plans, I will stick close to home and visit my local cemeteries. Re-visit my favorites and take more time to explore those that I have not been to for a while. There is always something new to find and photograph! 

Update: After writing this blog post I did just that! I had a mini road trip adventure this weekend. I’ll have a new post coming soon with some new photos.

Cemetery Appreciation Month

I just found out today that May is Cemetery Appreciation Month.

It’s not an official declaration by any means, but those in cemetery circles have been celebrating; and that is good enough for me! Cemeteries are often seen as taboo, so seeing them celebrated makes me very happy. 

Cemeteries are a beautiful place to visit and right now with COVID-19 ravaging the world, cemeteries are a great place to social distance as they are not often bustling with people. 

So in honour of Cemetery Appreciation Month, I have created a little bucket list for myself.

Volunteer some time to fulfill some photo requests in my area for Find A Grave.com – This is a great way to explore, take some photos and help others. Using Find a grave, anyone can request photos of a particular grave. This is usually used in research, most commonly genealogy.

Visit a cemetery I have not visited before – This is a great opportunity to take a little road trip.

Visit my favourite local cemetery – It’s been at least a year since I have been to Eyre cemetery, here in Sudbury. This is a great opportunity to pay another visit.

Have a picnic in a cemetery – I am taking a cue from a new Instagram account I follow for this one – cemeterylunches “Promoting death positivity one meal at a time”.

Happy Cemetery appreciation Month!

April showers bring May cemetery flowers

Spring always makes me think of cemetery flowers.

Flowers may not be the first thing on your mind when visiting cemeteries, unless of course you are bringing in an arrangement. But you may start to notice them more and more, dotting the graves, as well as the green spaces in between. Wild flowers can be found snaking through the grass and reaching into all corners of a cemetery plot.

Abandoned cemeteries are usually filled with wild flowers as there has not been anyone to weed or tend to the ever growing vines. They add a lovely pop of colour to a green space.

I have seen some plots completely filled with wild flowers, where families have made the entire plot a flower bed. I imagine their loved one must have been an avid Gardner.

You also see fabric or plastic flower arrangements. These must have been so beautiful when they were first placed; clean and bright. Over time these arrangements take on a different kind of beauty – weathering the elements and time.

St. John’s Alsace Cemetery ©2019

Springtime also means that the snow is melting, making cemeteries more accessible. Trudging through the snow is never fun. I have been slowly making plans for some road trips this spring/summer to visit some new-to-me places as well as some of my favourite spots.

Thankfully cemeteries are not usually a bustling place so being able to physically distance while exploring is great.

1 year ago today…

At this time last year, I was exploring New York City with my boyfriend by my side.

It was his first time visiting the big apple, and my second time. We did a lot of the touristy stuff; strolling in Central Park, walking along the Brooklyn Bridge, and admiring the twinkling lights of Times Square. It was an amazing trip, that was full of surprises. We visited an amazing restaurant called Ninja New York and enjoyed some sake and delicious sushi.

We had the good fortune of finding Obscura Antiques, the curiosity shop that was featured on the A&E’s television show – Oddities. It was so fun to talk to Mike and Evan, after dreaming about visiting their shop for ages. It was good timing as well since they have now closed their brick and mortar location. I also had the chance to visit not 1, but 2 graveyards, while in New York. We had taken the Big Red Bus tours and were making our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. We got off just down the street, close to the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street, and walked back towards the bridge.

I just had to stop in and take some photos. I was a little unprepared as I had not brought along my DSLR with me on this trip, but I did have my iphone with me. I saw some beautifully carved slate stones, with memento mori and deaths head skulls littered among them. Both Trinity Church and St. Pauls Chapel graveyards are filled with them. You may have noticed I have a deaths head skull as part of my logo. The craftsmanship in these stones is so detailed and has lasted over 300 years. Looking at the iconography on old stones like this always fills me with so many questions. I will have to go back with my proper camera and take some time exploring the grounds.

Trinity Church Graveyard – New York City, NY ©2020

Notes from a cemetery

Spring is just starting to wake up after a long winter sleep. Now that the snow is melting, and tombstones are beginning to peek out from the snowbanks. 

I have only visited cemeteries in the middle of winter once in my life, and it’s not something I plan on doing again. Yes, it’s beautiful; stark white contrasted against dark stones just visible above the snow. Pristine smooth snow blanketing the ground. But this is also why it’s not very fun to trudge through. Deep snow up to your knees, hidden stones create a tripping hazard, dangerous to you the intrepid explorer, and to the stones themselves.

When I visited those cemeteries in the middle of March, back in 2011, I was visiting one of my best friends in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It was my first time visiting that part of Canada, and I wanted to take advantage of the time I had there. My friend was very kind to accommodate me, although she didn’t join me in the stone fields. She did chauffeur me around, though, to two different cemeteries; the Pioneer Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery. 

Pioneer cemeteries are my favorite to visit. They are usually the oldest and have beautiful old stones. They tell the stories of the original settlers of a town, and sometimes have much more information on them than modern stones do. Many names found on the gravestones in a pioneer cemetery are often on street signs within that town. 

I loved visiting those cemeteries, and think about my time wading through snow to get that perfect shot, or to get closer to an interesting stone I spotted from far away. I also remember how cold it was, and how my boots were filled to the top with snow. It’s not something I have ever attempted again. 

I prefer to spend my winters editing batches of old photos from the previous summer. Recently I have started organizing them for social media and this new website.

Now that spring is almost here; I am starting to plan this summer’s road trips and maybe a tour around my local cemeteries. It has been a while since I checked in on them. It’s always a pleasant surprise to find new and unique stones in a place I have visited many times before.

Woodlawn Cemetery – Saskatoon, SK ©2011

Introductions

Hello, My name is Chantal and I am a taphophile.

I have always had a deep love of cemeteries and graveyards. It may sound a bit morbid, but I have always found beauty and peace in a cemetery. The combination of nature, art and history is what I find really appealing. A cemetery is a great place to go for a quiet walk, to learn about the history of a place, or to learn about your ancestors. Over the years I have visited many cemeteries and love to take pictures of what I see. I like to focus on details of headstones, iconography, interesting epitaphs and mementos left behind by loved ones.

After realizing I had folders upon folders of photos I wanted to do something with them, not just keep them to myself. So I decided a website would be a great place to showcase them. I’m still working out the details on how I want to organize them, but I’m sure that will evolve over time.

I choose WordPress because it looked like a great way to showcase my portfolio but also include a blog option. I am in no way an avid blogger, but I do get the urge to write sometimes. So please do not expect a perfectly kept up-to-date blog! I’m hoping to write about my favourite cemeteries, road trips, newly explored cemeteries, cemeteries in the news and other cemetery related things.

I will also be slowly adding photos as I go!

If you are interested, I can also be found other places around the web; Facebook, Instagram and ViewBug.

Thanks for visiting!

Woodlawn Cemetery – Kicthener, ON ©2019