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!