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.
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.
Snider, Tui. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards. 1st ed., Castle Azle Press, 2017.
Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. 1st ed., Gibbs Smith, 2004.
When we hear the words tombstone, headstone, or gravestone, they all bring the same image to mind; a stone marked with a name, birth date, death date, and maybe some funerary art and an epitaph. It is a stone representing a person laid to rest.
While working on some blog posts recently, I noticed I used the term tombstone very often. To avoid repetition, I found myself using some other words synonymously like headstone, gravestone, and grave marker. It got me thinking, ARE these words interchangeable, or is there a subtle difference? I decided to look into it a little deeper.
My term of preference seems to be tombstone, so that is where I started in my search. The dictionary defines a tombstone as “a stone marker, usually inscribed, on a tomb or grave”.1 The first known use of the word in print was in 1565.2 According to Merriam-Webster, a tombstone is also defined as a gravestone.2
So tombstone and gravestone can be used interchangeably. After a little more reading I found that a gravestone is a Middle English word dating back to 1175–1225.3 It has a similar definition to tombstone, but I read that the term gravestone comes from the practice of covering whole graves in stones, to mark the grave as well as “keep the occupants in the ground”.4
A headstone, according to dictionary.com is “a stone marker set at the head of a grave.5 This term was first recorded in 1525-35.5 It is interesting to note that this definition specifies the location of the stone, similar to a footstone, which is a smaller stone laid at the foot of a grave. The first known use of the word headstone was in the 15th century.6
Grave markers, also known as cemetery markers, are smaller and sit flat to the ground. They can sometimes be angled like a wedgestone, to make them easier to read. They may be small, but they still carry the same information, such as name, birth, and death date.7
Two other possible terms are monument and cenotaph. These are a little different as they are not as interchangeable. A monument refers specifically to a very large -monumental- stone.7 A cenotaph may seem similar to a tombstone or monument as it sometimes has names and dates engraved on it, but there are no bodies buried beneath it. Cenotaph means “empty tomb”.8 They are often used to memorialize and commemorate those buried elsewhere, such as soldiers who died in war.
All that being said, tombstone, gravestone and headstone can be used interchangeably. Although at one point in time they may have looked different than what we think of today. It’s interesting to look at how language has changed over time and how these words have all become synonymous with each other. After doing so much reading on the subject, I think tombstone is still my favourite term.
Do you have a preference? Or maybe you use a different term? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Have you ever heard of Zinkys? You may have come across one or two in your cemetery travels. I know I have, but it has only been until recently that I discovered what these beautiful stones are. That is one of the many things I love about my cemetery community, I am always learning new things from my fellow taphophiles.
Zinkys as they are lovingly referred to is also known as white bronze. They look very similar to carved stone headstones, but they are made from a zinc alloy and are hollow. These monuments were generally less expensive than carved stone, and are a lot more durable. You will often find intricate designs on white bronze headstones, that are still perfectly legible. You can recognize a white bronze headstone by its bluish-grey color, and giving it a gentle tap should produce a hollow sound.
According to Understanding Cemetery Symbols by Tui Snider, in the United States during the prohibition era, it was claimed that bootleggers would sometimes pry the panels off of these metal monuments to hide their booze.
Here in Canada, the White Bronze Company of St. Thomas, Ontario produced zinkys from 1883 to 1900. It was a child company of Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut.1 According to Connecticuthistory.org, Monumental Bronze Co. only produced white bronze between 1874 and 1914. In 1914, World War I saw the facilities turn from creating pure zinc tombstones to creating gun mounts and munitions.2 After the war, it seemed that tastes had changed, and public demand shifted to other natural materials for grave markers.
These blue-grey markers are truly beautiful in person. They range in size and detail, but I always find myself fascinated by how perfectly intact they are. I have come across a couple of broken ones, where a cross or spire has been broken off, but the names of the deceased are always legible.
Since learning about them, I have kept an eye out for them in my cemetery travels, and have been rewarded a few times this summer. I look forward to finding more in my travels.
I recently started reading the book 199 cemeteries to see before you die by Loren Rhoads.
It’s a beautiful book, that can be used as a travelogue, that lists must-see cemeteries all over the world. It highlights the history that makes each of them unique. The descriptions are accompanied by beautiful photos as well. I get wanderlust just looking at them!
It got me thinking about what my tally actually is for visited cemeteries. When I was younger, in the early days of my cemetery traveling, I did not document my cemetery photos that well, and have actually lost a large amount of those photos. They would have been taken with film cameras and an old digital point-and-shoot camera. I may still have the negatives somewhere.
I remember getting lost in the large cemetery in Guelph, Ontario, but don’t have the photos to prove it. I also remember chatting with the caretaker at the old cemetery in Amos, Quebec, and how excited he was to show me some of the more interesting stones there. I don’t have the photos from that trip either. That is one I really regret, as my Mother is from Amos. In that cemetery, it was amusing to see her turn around in circles, amazed at all the family that was buried there. I really wish to go back to visit there again someday.
So based on my folders of properly labeled and dated photos, here is the breakdown of how many cemeteries I have visited, so far:
Sudbury – 19
Ontario – 56
Quebec – 6
Saskatchewan – 2
New York City – 2
Total – 85 cemeteries
My record for the number of cemeteries visited in one day is 13. Maybe one day that record will be broken, but it has been standing since 2019.
Thanks to 199 cemeteries to see before you die, I have added a large number of cemeteries to my bucket list. Due to the pandemic though, those won’t be added to my tally anytime soon. For now, I will focus on continuing to visit cemeteries close to me. Maybe by the end of the summer, I will have hit 100?
Do you have a running tally of visited cemeteries? What is your number?