By George G. Morgan
Cemeteries have always held a certain fascination for me. They are restful, reflective places filled with a sense of timelessness. They also are the site of much genealogical research. Roaming through older cemeteries, I am often struck by the carvings on gravestones or the statuary there. Perhaps you, too, have asked yourself the meaning of a particular carving. In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, I want to discuss cemetery iconography—the meanings of some of the images found in the graveyard.
Return to United States Cemetery Records
A Very Brief History of Death Customs and Images
Humans have long marked graves and commemorated their dead. At some point, prehistoric man began the custom of burying the dead. Stones were used to prevent wild animals despoiling the gravesite. Later, seashells, tools, beads, clothing and other items were piled atop the grave or buried with the dead and funereal rites began.
The ancient societies of Egypt, China, and others are particularly noteworthy for their funeral customs, the building of elaborate tombs, and the development of unique types of funerary art and sculpture. When you think of Egypt, the images of mummies, elaborate pyramid tombs, hieroglyphic paintings, and other death-related objects immediately come to mind. The ancient Romans interred their dead in niches beneath the city in what are known as the Catacombs. In fact, studies of all human civilizations reveal that, to some degree or other, they have developed some ritual customs for dealing with death and with the remains of their dead. These include mound building, cremation, launching the dead out to sea in boats, sacrifices (human and otherwise), body painting, hair cutting, keening and wailing, erecting huts or tomb buildings, placing simple or elaborate markers at the death and/or burial site, and a wide variety of other customs.
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