Celebrate Cemetery Appreciation Month

Did you know that May is Cemetery Appreciation Month?

I first learned about it in 2021, and I have been celebrating every year since. Cemeteries are often seen as taboo and they are not often the first place someone would think to visit, but I believe that cemeteries are for the living. They are filled with history, art, and architecture, and are wonderful places to go for a stroll, or bird watching, among other things. Yes, they are resting places for our loved ones and should be respected, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy their beauty as well. Cemeteries were the blueprints for today’s public parks, after all. 

So how do you celebrate? In 2021, I created a mini bucket list of things to do during the month to foster an appreciation for cemeteries. It was a nice excuse to spend more time outside. I had a lot of fun completing everything on my list. Some activities on my list included visiting a cemetery I had not visited before, and re-visiting a favorite local cemetery.

This year I wanted to do something a little different. I’m a graphic designer by trade and wanted to create something that would bring my two loves together—design and cemeteries. I was also inspired by a cemetery scavenger hunt I took part in last October. I thought it would be really fun to do something similar with my group of friends. 

So I thought why not design a Cemetery Bingo card? 

It’s a great activity to do in a group or solo and lets you explore the world of cemetery symbols. I created my cards using my cemetery photographs as a reference. I illustrated 40 symbols that are commonly found on gravestones. I included the name beneath the symbol as well, to help identify common motifs you might find while walking in a cemetery. 

To play, all you need to do is print out a copy, bring something to mark your cards, and go for a walk in your local cemetery. Match the symbols on the card to what you find on the gravestones. The first one to get a full line wins! You can make that two lines, or even a full card to make it a bit more challenging. I can see this being a fun tool to introduce your friends and family to cemeteries and help explore gravestone symbolism. It could also be a fun activity for kids. 

Please remember to be respectful when visiting your local cemeteries. For a guide on cemetery etiquette, you can read a previous blog post I wrote about the rules I follow when visiting a cemetery here.

My friends and I will be going on a cemetery road trip very soon, and I think it will be a great opportunity to try out the bingo cards. We have a lot planned already, but I think we can fit in a round of Cemetery bingo. I’ll be sharing how our cemetery bingo plays out in my stories on Instagram on May 6th. 

Do you want to play too? You can download a set of 4 cards here, for free.

For best results, send this print-ready file to a local print shop, or you can print them at home on your home printer. Just be careful when you are trimming the pages. Then all you need are some markers, stickers, or bingo dabbers to mark off your finds and have fun! Make sure to tag me in your photos or stories on Instagram and Facebook

Happy Cemetery Appreciation Month!

Thanks for reading!

A Collection of Weeping Willows

While working on an upcoming project, I was going through my photo archive and found myself frequently stopping on the images of weeping willows. I have captured an interesting variety in the last few years. I love weeping willows, they have a very unique look. They are not common in my area, in the forests, or on graves. 

So for today’s collection, I wanted to take a closer look at this cemetery symbol and share some of the different versions I have found and photographed during my cemetery walks.

As the name implies, weeping willows commonly symbolize grief and mourning. They are a very common Victorian-era cemetery symbol. Adopted from the Ancient Greeks, the weeping willow can represent immortality and life after death. Weeping willows are sometimes associated with the Underworld because, in Greek mythology, Orpheus brought with him a willow branch on his travels to the Underworld to save Eurydice from Hades.1 The symbolism of immortality stems from the fact that willow trees are very hardy, and can survive heavy damage.

A variety of the weeping willow motif you might find is a weeping willow standing beside a gravestone. I love the idea of a gravestone on a gravestone. 

Another variation you might come across is of a weeping willow and urn. The urn represents death itself, and the willow again symbolizes grief.2 This motif was a popular gravestone symbol of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. You might also see weeping willows paired with a lamb or a cross.3 I have yet to come across these variations. 

I noticed that the majority of the ones I found were in Southern Ontario. As I explore more Ontario cemeteries this summer, I hope I will come across a few more to photograph. I would love to find some more variations on the symbol. If you have any suggestions for where I might look, I would love to hear about them in the comments. 

Thanks for reading!


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Mastering Cemetery Iconography | The Academy at Penguin Hall
  3. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

A Collection of Doves

This week, I had originally planned on posting a cemetery recipe for Red Lantern Cheese dip, from the gravestone of Debra Ann Nelson. But, I had some issues finding the correct ingredients and the recipe didn’t turn out as expected. So I will continue my hunt for the elusive ingredients. 

Instead, this week I will share a collection of Dove’s. If you have been following this blog for a little while, you may have noticed that I sometimes like to share collections of my favorite photos of some of the cemetery symbols I find on my cemetery walks. I have been photographing cemeteries for over 15 years, and in that time I have noticed some repetition of certain symbols and motifs. I find cemetery symbolism so interesting and love looking at what the different variations of a symbol mean.

Doves are not as common a symbol as lambs in Northern Ontario, but they represent similar ideas. Doves commonly are a symbol of peace, but when used in funerary art, they also represent innocence and the Holy Spirit. Doves may appear in many forms, such as sculpture or bas-relief. There are also different variations of doves, and each carries additional meaning.

Sometimes a dove may be depicted carrying something in its mouth. A dove with an olive branch in its mouth may represent peace. This symbolism also can be traced to Ancient Greece. A dove carrying a broken flower bud in its mouth often symbolizes a life cut short. 

The position and angle of the dove may have some significance as well. A dove flying downward is thought to represent the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven.

Another variation of a dove you might find, is a dove that looks like it might be dead. A dead dove sadly represents a life cut short. This variation may also be found lying in front of, or on top of a tree stump; which is also a symbol of a life cut short.

Have you come across a different variation of this symbol? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

Cemetery symbolism in Sudbury District Cemeteries

This post was first published in the Ontario Genealogical Society, Sudbury District Branch newsletter, Ancestor Hunting (Volume 44 Issue 4).

For me, symbolism is one of the many things that make visiting cemeteries so interesting. I have been photographing them for over 15 years, but I still continue to find unique symbols that have me reaching for my reference books. I have lived in Sudbury almost all of my life, so I have spent a fair amount of time traveling in Northern Ontario to visit cemeteries. I have yet to visit ALL the cemeteries in the Sudbury district, but as of May of this year, I can now say that I have visited all 25 in the Greater City of Sudbury. I have noticed a repetition of certain symbols and motifs and wanted to share some of my findings.

The majority of the cemeteries found here are of a religious denomination. You can often find a variety of human statues in these cemeteries, representing Saints and Angels or symbolizing grief and mourning. Another common religious symbol is the cross. There are so many varieties of crosses, each with various meanings. You could write a whole book on just cross symbolism alone! Some of the more common crosses you can find are the Agony cross, with its pointed ends that represent the agony of the crucifixion, or the Glory or Rayed cross, its rays representing the glory of God. 

I have also noticed quite a few handmade stones. I find handmade stones to be beautiful, full of love, and have a unique charm. They come in all shapes and forms. Some are hand-poured cement, with stones and tokens embedded in them. They are usually adorned with hand lettering, either hand painted or hand carved, or might have handmade plaques affixed to them.

Another common symbol you will find in the area is the lamb. This is another religious symbol, representing the “lamb of God”, as well as innocence and sacrifice. Lambs are most commonly found on the graves of small children and infants. Lambs are often depicted laying down, sometimes in front of a tree stump. The tree stump symbolizes a life cut short. 

Another common symbol found on children’s graves in the Sudbury district is the dove. Similar to the lamb, a dove represents peace, innocence, and purity. One of the variations on the dove symbol you might find is a dove that looks dead. This symbolizes a life cut short.  

In my experience, books are not quite as common as some other symbols in our area, but they are still one of my favorite cemetery symbols. I’m an avid reader, so seeing a book on a gravestone always makes me smile. I have seen many variations of books in the area. Books can be decorative or symbolic. Some gravestones use a book as a device to display the name of the deceased, along with dates. An open book can sometimes represent emotions, open to the world, or symbolize a life that has been cut short, before getting to the last page. Another variation you might find, is a closed book, usually at the top of a truncated obelisk. A closed book symbolizes a long life, lived to the last chapter. Some books represent the Holy Bible and might be labeled as such. 

This is just a small sampling of the more common cemetery symbols you will find in our local cemeteries. I look forward to seeing what other common symbols might be found in our district cemeteries, as I continue to explore them. 

Thanks for reading!

A Collection of Tree Stones

While wandering a cemetery, have you ever come across a monument that is shaped and textured to look like a tree? Today, I want to take a closer look at these types of grave markers, called tree stones. Although they are a bit harder to come by in Northern Ontario, you can find them, and they are usually very easy to spot since they are so unique!

Tree stones are often used as memorials for members of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization. This fraternal order was started in 1890, and membership included those who worked in particularly dangerous professions. The organization offered health insurance and death benefits to its members, which included a tree stone tombstone.1

Woodmen of the World tree stones, often bare the Woodmen crest, as well the tools of the trades like an axe and sledgehammer, representing the works of man. You may also find other symbols on tree stones like ivy or doves, representing friendship and peace, respectively.

The severed branches or tree stump of a tree stone, Woodmen of the World or otherwise, often represents a life cut short. We often see this combined with other symbolism, like a lamb or dove laying in front of a stump. Lambs and doves are often found on the graves of small children, symbolizing innocence and purity.

Sometimes the number of logs on a tree stone can be symbolic of the number of children the deceased had. A tree stone can also be seen as a representation of the tree of life, symbolizing knowledge. 

Have you ever come across a tree stone? Or maybe a Woodmen of the world memorial? I would love to hear about your finds, in the comments. 

Thanks for reading! 


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider

A Collection of Obelisks

I am in the midst of working on a blog post about my adventures searching for the grave of Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park. I’m hoping to have it up in the next week or two. In the meantime, I thought I would take a look at some Egyptian revival architecture that can sometimes be found in cemeteries, more specifically—obelisks.

Obelisks are Egyptian in origin, but became a popular Christian funerary symbol. They are now a common sight in most cemeteries. I have found quite a few in my cemetery travels and wanted to share some of them with you today. 

In Understanding Cemetery Symbols, Tui Snider notes that obelisks became popular symbols after Napoleon invaded Egypt in the late 1700s. An obelisk is thought to represent a ray of light, but it can also symbolize focused spiritual goals, with the wide base narrowing to a point, symbolizing the deceased reuniting with God at death, and the two becoming one. 

Different variations of obelisks can be found throughout a cemetery. For example, Truncated obelisks do not come to a sharp point at the top, but are flat or topped with another symbol like a cross, urn or an orb. 

Obelisks can sometimes be found at the center of a family plot, representing the family’s connection to God. They are particularly well suited for this, as there is generally a lot of room on all four sides of the stone to inscribe the names of family members. 

You might also find vaulted obelisks. These stones have points on all four sides at the top instead of coming to one point.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

A Collection of Books

I love books! I am a big reader and have a large book collection at home, but I love finding stone books among the tombstones while wandering a cemetery. I find them very interesting and love trying to interpret what they mean.

Books can be both decorative or a representation of something. You can sometimes find a book being used as a decorative device to display the name of the deceased along with the birth and death dates. An open book can sometimes represent the human heart, as in it’s emotions are open to the world. An open book may also symbolize a life that has been cut short, before getting to the last page. Another variation of this is an open book with a cloth draped across it. This also represents a life cut short, the veil of death having bookmarked the person’s last chapter before the book is finished being written. A closed book might represent a long life, lived to the last chapter.

Any book found in a cemetery may represent the bible. Sometimes you may even find the words “Holy Bible” engraved on the book.

In my experience, books are not as common as some other funerary symbols, like hands and lambs. I love to photograph them when I do find them. I wanted to share some of my favorites with you today.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

A Collection of Hands

One of my favorite cemetery symbols are hands. They can represent so many things from only how they are positioned. I also find them beautifully detailed, and they have a lot to say. Hands are a very common symbol in funerary art and can be found in almost any cemetery.

I have photographed many over the years, ranging from very simple to very detailed, and wanted to share some of them with you today.

A hand pointing upward often represents going up to heaven. You may also find a hand pointing down, which can look a little odd, but it does not mean what you may have first thought. A hand pointing down usually represents a sudden or unexpected death. Clasped hands or praying hands often represent devotion but can also be seen as a plea for eternal life.

Handshakes are a very common variation and also can have a few different meanings. When the handshake depicts limp fingers held by a firm handshake, this often represents the deceased being welcomed to heaven by loved ones or maybe even God. When one finger is extended, it is a masonic handshake, meaning the deceased was a member of the Freemasons. You may also find a double masonic handshake, where one finger is extended on each of the hands. This is meant to resemble the square & compass, the emblem of the Freemasons. You should also look closely at the wrists of the hands, this can also give more clues. If both hands look masculine, this could represent fraternal brotherhood. If one of the cuffs is more feminine and one more masculine, this is most likely a marital handshake, to indicate the deceased was married.

When you find a hand holding a book, that book is often meant to be the bible. Sometimes it is more obvious, as it may have “holy bible” inscribed on it.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider 
  2. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister

A Collection of Lambs

I love exploring cemeteries and looking at the different symbols used on tombstones. If you spend a lot of time in cemeteries, especially in Northern Ontario, you will start to notice the repetition of certain symbols and motifs. One of the most common symbols I find, is the lamb.

Lambs represent innocence and sacrifice, as they were often used in sacrificial ceremonies in ancient times1. Most often you will find lambs on the gravestones of infants and children, as Jesus is often depicted as a Shepherd, and also known as the “lamb of God”. Some variations can be found with lamb symbolism. A robed figure with a standing lamb beside it most often represents John the Baptist, who had called Jesus the “lamb of God”1. A lamb with a cross is known to represent the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei2, symbolizing the suffering of Christ as he sacrificed himself for the sins of mankind. Several other symbols may be found with a lamb to symbolize the lamb of God – such as a banner, halo, shepherds crook, and alpha and/or omega symbols2. A single seated lamb symbolizes an innocent soul. A seated lamb can sometimes be found sitting in front of a tree stump, this often symbolizes a life cut short. 

Finding lambs is often sad, but they are a beautiful symbol. I have photographed many over the years and wanted to share some of them with you today. 

Eyre Cemetery, Sudbury ON ©2011


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister

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 symbolism 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 symbolism is very common. Below are some examples of some 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 a sudden or unexpected death. This hand below, is also holding a chain. A broken link in the chain can represent a family or marriage broken by death.

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 most often found at the grave of a young child or infant.

Skulls are very rare to come by in my local Canadian cemeteries. I have only found two 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.

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. Do you have a favorite? I would love to read about them in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A field guide to historic cemeteries by Tui Snider
  2. Storie in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Douglas Keister