Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mountain View Cemetery: Symbols


Awhile back I took a tour of Mountain View Cemetery. The cemetery also has tours about different things people find interesting; Saturday was a tour called "Symbolism in the Cemetery", about the different symbols used on graves.

Sometimes symbols on graves simply represent something of interest to the person buried there, such as musical instruments on the grave of a musician. But on older graves especially, there is usually a special meaning for symbols. Something broken like the string of a lyre or a broken ship's wheel represents the end of life. Something cut is frequently the symbol of a life cut short, as is a not fully-bloomed rose. There are lots of symbols used on older graves, but only a few symbols are still used on modern graves, such as the Christian cross or the Jewish Star of David.

A couple of interesting grave symbols come from Judaism. One is the custom of leaving a pebble or small stone on a grave marker. This dates back to ancient times when grave markers weren't used, and the grave was simply marked by a cairn, or pile of stones. Leaving a stone perpetuated the grave, and marked that someone had visited.

kohanim hands

Another symbol of note is the kohanim hands. It's used on grave markers to indicate someone descended from the priestly tribe of Aaron. Actor Leonard Nimoy created a one-handed version of this for the Star Trek series, to represent a Vulcan salute.

Some of the symbols we saw on Saturday:
rose - love, beauty, grace
fern - humility and sincerity
wheat - the harvest, a long life
ivy - fidelity, eternal friendship
palm frond - victory over death
willow - grief, sorrow
oak - longevity, endurance, loyalty
lotus - creation and rebirth, particularly on Egyptian-themed graves
lily - purity, innocence
anchor - hope
lyre (w/broken string) - end of life
torch (inverted or extinguished) - death, live snuffed out
torch (lit) - eternal life
pelican - self-sacrificing mother (see note)
sphinx - guardian, protection
hands (clasped) - farewell
crescent moon w/star - rebirth, or Islam
book, scroll - the scriptures, or a symbol of life recorded
dove - peace, messenger of God
IHS - first three letters of "Jesus" in Greek
angel - death and resurrection, a guide to heaven
lamb - innocence, Jesus (lamb of God)
urn - the soul
pile of stones - firm foundation
star of David - Judaism, divine protection
menorah - Judaism, enlightenment
kohanim hands - blessing, from the priestly tribe of Aaron
tree stump - Woodman of the World
3-link chain - (sometimes with F,L,T) Independent Order Odd Fellows
square + compass - Freemasonry
eye - the eye of God, usually a Masonic symbol

There seems to be some disagreement about the exact meaning of some of the symbols, but entire books have been written on the subject. One interesting website I found with explanations of the symbols is called Grave Addiction. Lots of people are interested in graves and cemeteries; there's even a special word for them: taphophile.

One local taphophile, Barbara Gibson, has started a new business called Last Wishes, to help people plan the ceremonial aspects of their funerals, along with practical considerations, including what happens to their online presence like Twitter accounts and blogs.

For more on the Mountain View Cemetery in general, including links to various resources about the cemetery and Oakland history and more pictures, see my post about the general tour.

Lots more pictures:


Julie said...

Wuhoo ... so much of interest here, Gene. Now that I sort of know what I am looking for, I know that our Sydney cemeteries are riddled with symbols. Let's see if they differ from those in the USA to any large extent.

I will link to some of your posts in my header pages if I may, please? I am sure some of my readers will find this stuff as riveting as I do.

Great to make your acquaintance kind sir, and thank you once again for your contribution to Taphophile Tragics.

Gene said...

Link away! But good to know ahead of time so I can know why my Oakland blog is suddenly getting more hits from Australia :-)