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In most societies, it is the expectation that after a death occurs, there will be rituals and other burial activities carried out (Ritter, 2012). Part of the cultural expectations in some societies is that there will be a grave. On gravestones different emblems and symbols are usually adorned on and they all have different meanings and represent different attitudes and religious beliefs. Some of the imagery and grave markers on the graves may have simple interpretations while others are not easy to interpret.
Today, no one can ignore that the social norm in most countries where there are graves burials is to have the loved ones buried alongside their loved ones. The only exception is in cases where families opt to cremate a loved one. For those who bury their loved ones, there is a way in which the loved ones gravestones are marked as evidenced in the gravestones I saw while walking through the Old Cemetery in Tallahassee, Florida.
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As I walked through the cemetery, one thing I noted was that there were grave plots where family members were buried together. In other instances, people who were not buried alongside their family members were buried alone. In the earlier centuries, some gravestones only had little or no carvings and in most instances only had the name of the person that died written on the stone (Ritter, 2012). One such gravestone can be noted below in picture 1 which shows only the name of the person who died without providing many details.
According to Brooks (2010), graves in the earlier centuries before the 18th-century had few marking and written memorial for certain reasons. It is only the people who could afford to pay to have the gravestone of their loved ones inscribed and their deeds included. The other reason is that only people of importance, such as politicians, clergy or other people of high positions had their gravestones inscribed with many details. Though the gravestone writing does not clearly indicate who the person was in the picture above, the only way one can tell who H. Woodward was can only by looking at the other things besides the gravestone such as the flag provided alongside. The flag is placed alongside the grave, this perhaps indicates that the man was a soldier or a Confederate.
The tombstones of family members or single persons were different in the 18th-century and they had markings such as “Wife and Husband” or “son of” and other markings such as “mother and father”. An example of such gravestones is shown below.
From picture 2 provided above, the markings on the gravestone show the relationship between the deceased family members. The term “wife of” is indicated in the topmost gravestone belonging to M.A. Shine. Based on the description, it is clear that M.A. Shine was the wife of R.A. Shine whose markings are on the bottom of the tombstone. The description on the R.A. Shine gravestone is not given as “husband of”. As Rotar et al., (2014), assert, when the 18th-century women married, they were considered a part of a man’s property. Hence, this may be one of the reasons explaining why the M.A Shine gravestone was marked as “wife of” and not that of the husband. In picture 3, the gravestone shows that when people died when they were unmarried or young, the grave markings were often described as “son of” or “daughter of”. For example, in the gravestone given in picture 3, the words “sacred” and “son of” R.A. and M.A. Shine, are used. Based on the gravestone in picture 3, the age of their son is also in full details.
In picture 4, the markings on the gravestone show that the loved one was not only a daughter, but also a wife. The descriptions are inscribed as Elizabeth Budd Graham, “wife of” John Graham and “daughter of” David and Florence Wilson. Similar to picture 3, the full details of the daughter and wife have been provided in the gravestone with descriptions going as far as describing her as a “dutiful daughter, devoted mother and faithful wife”. The gravestone further indicates that the attitude towards young people and death was viewed as a major loss for a family as opposed to an instance where the deceased was old. On the gravestone in picture 4, words such as “broken” and “she died so young” are used to show the mood and attitude of the family towards her departure. The words “devoted mother” are used to show she was a mother and this shows that even in death, family roles such as those of a wife, daughter and, mother were still recognized. The United States Genealogy & History Network (2013), also shows that the stone symbols as indicated in the gravestone, picture 4 had a meaning. The symbol shows a cross above the inscriptions of the loved one, which was used to show that Elizabeth Graham was a Christian.
The 19th and 20th Century
There are several notable changes in the 19th and the 20th century, which may be attributed due to the changes in the cultural norm and religious beliefs. The distinction between the gravestone markings in the 17th, 18th and 19th century is not as much as that of gravestones in the 20th century. In the 19th century, the church still had control over how people buried their loved ones and the ceremonies that were allowed to take place. Before the 20th century, strict religious practices would not have allowed people to hire people to hire strangers to organize the memorials and come up with gravestone markings, a common practice in the 20th century and today. The differences in the gravestones in the 19th century and 20th century can be seen in the pictures provided below.
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In picture 5 provided above the difference of the gravestone can be seen with those that were there in the 17th and 18th-century. Picture 5 shows the gravestone markings of a couple, but unlike the markings “wife of” or “daughter of” used in the 17th and 18th-century, there are no such inscriptions on the gravestone. There is some simplicity in the way the gravestones are marked and also shaped. They are given a simple rectangular or square shape and familial relationships do not necessarily have to be indicated as noted in the gravestone in picture 6. The two pictures show gravestones with only the names of the wife and husband, based on their names, with only a small line to partition the lines. Picture 6 shows the gravestone of an old lady, based on her age but unlike in the other centuries, it does not necessarily indicate whether she died as someone’s wife or mother. Of course, she was someone’s daughter but her parents’ names have not been inscribed on the gravestone as was common in 17th and 18th-century.
In this last picture number 7, the gravestone shows a man in his late 80s and was also a Veteran based on the flag that has been planted alongside his gravestone. There is a major difference between this 20th century and those that were in the 18th or 19th century. In the 18th-century, gravestones belonging to men were rarely marked as “husband of”. In this gravestone, the inscriptions clearly indicate “husband of” a Patricia Turnley. As Rotar et al., (2014), assert in the 18th-century women were considered part of a man’s property once they were married and if not married, they were the property of their father. The gravestone in picture 7 shows the differences in cultural norms and beliefs. In the 20th century, women could own property and were not regarded as property to be inherited. Therefore, with such changes in the culture, gravestones can now be inscribed using terms such as “husband of”. The markings are also indicative of the love between a couple and not ownership or role as indicated in the gravestones in earlier centuries. As Ritter (2012), notes age in the 20th century also had no meaning when it came to the person that died. The gravestone in picture 7 of an old Veteran is not different from that of a young person in this century or the 20th century.
After the 20th– century the wording and imagery on most gravestones have continued to change. As noted from the analysis, before the 18th-century and during the 18th-century the gravestones in American burial grounds were usually inscribed with simple stone markings. Most of the stones had little or no carvings and only had the name of the person that dies and the date of death. Evidently, the cultural and religious changes that affect people’s social and family relationships have an effect on how they grieve and mark the gravestones of their loved ones.
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- Brooks, T. (2010). Vermeer’s Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world. London: Profile Books.
- Ritter, L. J. (2012). Grave Exclamations: An Analysis of Tombstones and Their Use as Narrative of Self (Master’s thesis, Minnesota State University, 2012) (pp. 70-108). Cornerstone.
- Rotar, M., Teodorescu, A., & Rotar, C. (2014). Dying and Death in 18th-21st Century Europe: Volume 2. London, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
- United States Genealogy & History Network. (2013). Tombstone Symbols & their Meanings.