Stories in the Stones: An online course by Atlas Obscura 

Last Sunday was my last session of Stories in the Stones with Dr. Elise Ciregna. I enjoyed this course so much and wanted to share my experience and thoughts with you. I met some interesting and like-minded people and learned some very interesting things about cemeteries and gravestones. The last four weeks have been filled with presentations, discussions, readings, and visiting cemeteries, so I thought writing about it would be a great way to cap off the experience.

Stories in the Stones is a four-part seminar with Dr. Elise Ciregna. Dr. Elise is a historian specializing in social, visual, and material culture. She has a master’s degree in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University.1 She has worked for historic cemeteries and is the former President of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Elise is a fountain of knowledge and shares it eagerly. I enjoyed getting to know her over these last four weeks. There were 14 people in my seminar, all connected by a love and interest in cemeteries, and all with varying backgrounds. It was great to meet other taphophiles. 

The course is broken down into 4 sessions:

  • The Colonial and Early National Period: Stones and Crossbones
  • The Nineteenth Century The Rural Cemetery Movement and the Age of Marble
  • Cemeteries as Spaces for Specific Communities
  • The Twentieth Century to the Present + Genealogical Research.1

Everything was done over Zoom and Google Classroom. I have never used Google Classroom before but it didn’t take long to figure out its functionality. Dr. Elise posted all her slides there, as well as resources, suggested readings, and the optional homework. I didn’t get a chance to read all the suggested readings during the duration of the course, but I found the readings I did have a chance to read, helpful to follow along with the slides. I plan to finish the suggested readings, as well as follow up with the other resource links that were provided. I also enjoyed the homework assignments, although I didn’t share them with the class. We did have the opportunity to share, either before the class presentation or in Google Classroom. The optional homework was a great tool to further my understanding of the material.

As I mentioned before, I enjoyed this course immensely. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it, being a Canadian in an American-based course, but I found all the information interesting and useful. Elise expertly walked us through the history and evolution of gravestone symbols, the background of stone carvers, as well as the evolution and distinctions between different types of cemeteries. Not only is Dr. Elise a repository of information and experience with historic cemeteries, but she also loves to share that knowledge. If you have a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, she will take the time to try and find the answers.

I feel that I truly learned a lot from this course. After just the first session, I visited some cemeteries with some friends and found myself putting the teachings into action, by explaining symbols and tombstone attributes to my friends. They joked that now they didn’t need to take the course. My only complaints are that it was too short! I feel like they could have added a couple of extra sessions to delve into some of the subjects, like specific community cemeteries. I also would have liked to get a certificate of completion at the end. I personally think it would have been fun to have and frame for my wall.

So, if you have been thinking about signing up for this course, here is your sign! Taphophiles, historians, and genealogists alike will find something interesting in this course. Regardless if you have a little or a lot of knowledge of gravestone studies, I think you would learn something new and love this course.

Have you taken this course? Did you enjoy it? I would love to read about your experience in the comments.

Thanks for reading! 


References:

  1. Stories in the Stones: How to Read a Gravestone With Dr. Elise M. Ciregna

The Association for Gravestone Studies

I found out about The Association for Gravestone Studies years ago, while doing some online shopping. I was looking at gravestone rubbing kits at Pushin Daisies, the mortuary novelty shop. Each kit comes with information on becoming a member of AGS. I was curious. I didn’t end up purchasing a rubbing kit, but I did end up getting myself a membership for AGS. After being a member for a few years, I let my membership lapse due to financial reasons. I missed being part of the Association and missed receiving gravestone-related mail though.

When I decided to focus more on my cemetery photography a couple of years ago, one of the first things I did was renew my membership. I am very happy to be a member again! 

Logo for the Association for Gravestone Studies, www.gravestonestudies.org

“The Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) was founded in 1977 for the purpose of furthering the study and preservation of gravestones. AGS is an international organization with an interest in gravemarkers of all periods and styles. Through its publications, conferences, workshops and exhibits, AGS promotes the study of gravestones from historical and artistic perspectives, expands public awareness of the significance of historic gravemarkers, and encourages individuals and groups to record and preserve gravestones. At every opportunity, AGS cooperates with groups that have similar interests.” – www.gravestonestudies.org

What drew me to the Association, was finding other like-minded individuals, and all the resources they offer. There are quite a few AGS chapters throughout the United States, and when I first joined there were a couple of Canadian chapters. Unfortunately, none were close to me, and those chapters have since closed. There are lots of opportunities to get to know your fellow members and taphophiles though, like the AGS Conference for example. This annual conference takes place in a different location each year and features events like field trips, conservation workshops, hands-on sessions as well as panels, evening lectures, and late-night presentations. Last year the conference went virtual! I think it was a great approach. It’s mindful of the current pandemic, and a great way for those of us that are far away, to attend. I do hope they continue to offer some virtual events for the conference.

In addition to that, there are a lot of publications available. The AGS Quarterly is the bulletin of the Association for Gravestone Studies. It’s published 4 times a year and is delivered right to your door if you are a member. The Quarterly features articles, and regular columns on conservation and International gravestone studies. I love the articles in the Quarterly, they are always fascinating. Another publication AGS offers is Markers, the annual journal of AGS. During the winter months, what I consider my off-season for cemetery photography, I have been diving into the back issues of Markers, reading them cover to cover. It’s a beautiful perfect-bound journal that features definitive illustrated articles on cemetery and gravestone topics. It’s very in-depth and very informative. It also features international content. A bonus of AGS membership is that now you can read and download past issues of Markers online. They offer a lot of other online resources as well, in their knowledge centre. There you can find information on symbolism and the archives of past Markers and AGS Quarterly issues, as well as past e-newsletters. They also have a database of websites that pertain to the preservation of gravestones.

New this year, AGS has added a virtual book club. Starting in January, the book club meets on the third Sunday of each month and focuses on books about cemeteries, gravestones, mourning customs, funerary practices, and death and dying. The book for January was 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. I attended the first meeting and had a great time. There were about 30 participants, including the books author. We were split up into 2 smaller groups for discussions. In virtual break-out rooms, the moderators inspired conversation by asking questions about elements of the book. There was a great range of participants from all over the world. It was really interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts. Having Loren in attendance was a pleasant surprise. It was really interesting to get some extra insights from her. I’m looking forward to February’s meeting, where we will be discussing City of Immortals: Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris by Carolyn Campbell.

I highly recommend joining the Association for Gravestone Studies if you have an interest in cemeteries, and gravestone preservation. It’s a great place to find others with a passion for cemeteries and a great resource to learn more about everything cemetery related.

To learn more about the Association for Gravestone Studies, please visit their website. You can also find AGS on Facebook and Instagram.

Thanks for reading!

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!

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 gravestones, 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 reading!