As you’ll notice if you’ve ever visited Woodland, or if you attend our public walking tour on June 24th, our older sections are filled with break-taking monuments. Many of them are hand-carved, and feature statue work and meaningful symbols along with beautifully engraved scripture or poetry.
When I first started working here, my boss alerted me to the fact that what a Victorian era family chose to put on a monument was never a mistake. Rather, the Victorians were fixated on symbolism, and when they erected a gravestone for a loved one, they wanted to make sure it reflected something of that person’s disposition, their career, their relationships, or their life. Because these stones were rather expensive, and space was precious, this unique expression was often accomplished through symbols that other members of society would be able to recognize. Nowadays, though we still retain some cultural knowledge of these, we often have no idea the intricate meanings that these stones were meant to convey.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing some research on Victorian monument symbolism, and thought I’d share some of it in a blog post so that you can identify these stones for yourself while you’re out on the grounds!
Urns and Shrouds
People weren’t really cremated in Victorian times, so why have an urn on top of your gravestone? It was actually a reference to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, who did cremate their dead. Victorians used this symbolism to represent that they were in tune with the Classics, which were exceedingly popular at the time, thereby letting the world know that they were cultured and knowledgeable. These urns sometimes have shrouds laying overtop of them, which represent the “veil” that exists between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Columns were also a nod to the Greeks – this time to their architecture. Columns were a symbol of strong support, which in Victorian times usually denoted the head of the household – a father or husband who supported his family. Columns on gravestones are often purposefully broken, as this symbolises that the life of this support was cut short suddenly or too soon. Columns can be broken at the top, as shown in the picture, or lying on their side in two pieces.
People holding hands is one of my favourite pieces of symbolism, as there is so much to read into it. They represent a married relationship (or another close, unified relationship – family or friend) that has had to end due to death. The “hand-shake” on the stones can depict a last farewell, but more often it depicts someone who has died first leading another person to heaven when they die. You can sometimes tell the gender of the person by the cuffs on their sleeves: keeping with the dress of the time, men wore straight cuffs and women wore lace or puffed ones. If a straight cuffed arm is clasping from behind, it likely means that a husband, who died previously, is leading his wife to join him in the afterlife.
Hands Pointing Upward
Hands that point up symbolize that the deceased has ascended to Heaven, and has received their final reward for a life well lived. It serves as a confirmation of life after death for the faithful. They are one of the most popular symbols depicted on our monuments here at Woodland. (Note: don’t worry if you see a hand pointing down, it doesn’t mean the deceased as gone… well… not to Heaven. Rather, the inversion of this symbol means that the deceased is pointing down from above).
Portraiture on gravestones is usually used to depict a likeness of the deceased, which is really neat because we get a glimpse into what these people looked like before cameras were widely available. Families often put portraits on stones if a person died in their youth, so that their youthfulness would be forever preserved.
The scroll is a symbol of life and time unfolding. If a scroll is rolled up at both ends on a monument, it marks the beginning and ending of a life. Scrolls are also a nod to honour and commemoration, and can also symbolise Biblical scripture or ancient texts.
Roses usually adorn the graves of young women, and they dually represent heavenly perfection and earthly passion. If the rose is broken, it indicates the deceased’s age: a broken bud means the girl was under 12 years old when she died; a partial bloom represents death during teenage years; a full bloom represents someone in the prime of their life. Joined or intertwined rosebuds depicts a bond between mother and child – if you see these, it may mean a mother who died in childbirth which, unfortunately, was all too common in the 1800s.
These symbols usually depict someone who hailed from Scotland – we’ve been uncovering lots of these lately!
Lambs always mark the grave of a small child. The ancient Egyptians first connected the lamb with purity and innocence, and it’s a symbol that has been carried forward into Christian practice as it is linked to Jesus Christ as a shepherd. These stones are often small and low to the ground, so keep an eye out for them!
Doves symbolize the Holy Spirit, purity, and devotion (often between married couples). Many also associated the dove with peace, as we do today. If the dove is depicted as flying on the monument, it is thought to be carrying the deceased’s soul to heaven.
Many people mistake this for a “money sign” – but what is it really? It’s actually an anagram of the letters IHS, which stands for Iesus Hominum Salvator – Jesus the Savior of men. It was a sign of membership to the Christian faith.
Open books usually represent scholastic knowledge (someone who was a devoted intellectual) or scripture (someone who was a faith leader in the community). The book being open represents this person’s openness to knowledge or the word of God. This symbol is also connected with good deeds the deceased may have done being recorded in the mythical “Book of Life.”
You’ll see lots of fraternity symbols on our monuments here, but by far the most common are Masonic symbols. They represent freemasonry, an organization of stone masons which has its origins in the late 14th century.
Woodsmen of the World
These ones are particularly rich with meaning, and we have a few of them on the grounds. The Woodsmen of the World was a brotherhood and insurance company that had as its members people who worked dangerous physical jobs (like lumberjacks and fishermen). When insured men died (on the job or otherwise), the company would pay for a monument in the shape of a tree trunk, which represented equality and craftsmanship. Interestingly, each of these stones was personalized for the person it memorialised – someone who worked at sea might have an anchor on their stone, and someone who worked in the forest might have a saw. All of the monuments include the WMotW crest, and their motto dum tacet clamet, which means “though silent, he speaks”.
I hope next time you’re out on Woodland’s grounds you can find some of these symbols for yourself, and perhaps gain some insight into the lives that they memorialize from a century ago!