Friday, June 19, 2009

Grave Art: Its symbols & meanings, and how to use it to spice up a paranormal plot

By Elizabeth Eagan-Cox, author of the Shannon Delaney paranormal mystery novels.

Death’s aftermath leaves intriguing clues to a decedent’s identity and lifestyle. Telltale clues found on gravestones and tombs hidden in the artwork and symbols are keys to the decedent’s interests, activities and associations.

My use of grave art as a subtext in my cozy paranormal mystery series of novels is by design. I use knowledge gained from treading lightly over burial grounds spurred on by genealogical research. I am a member of one of the oldest lineage societies in the U.S., namely the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution. Yes… that D.A.R.

In D.A.R. documentation for lineage is stringent, to say the least. Proof requires hard evidential documentation from vital records, military records and official documents, such as census files, court papers, property records and so on. Family say-so and church affiliated files won’t hold up to D.A.R. scrutiny. Just so you know… as a person who hunts down her ancestors, I regard the topic of grave art with profound respect… it has revealed a world hidden from the view of documents.

More to the point of this web site’s focus, grave art can be used in defining a character or plotting a story, so, let’s take a journey into Death’s art.

Graveyard or Cemetery? A graveyard is a burial ground connected to or adjacent to a church. A person must be a member of the church or the denomination to rest in eternal peace in its burial ground. On the other side of Death’s fence is the public cemetery, available to all and often will have sections designated to specific religions and denominations.

The change between graveyard and cemetery began in the mid-1800s when public memorial parks were born. A catalyst to the memorial park was new restrictions forbidding church burials. Many churches were running out of room, thus burials were one on top of the other with scant topsoil to cover up the dead! In this wake came the less expensive community-public cemetery. To summarize; Graveyard equals a religious affiliation. Cemetery is public and may have sections designated for specific religions.

Plot potential is in the query: Why would one member of a family be buried in a common cemetery while all other family members are buried in a graveyard?

Death’s Fashion: Time and space doesn’t allow in-depth discussion of this topic. It’s too complex and would require a book, not a blog! For the sake of you, the paranormal writer, I am giving brief esoteric examples focusing on the 1800s and early 1900s. And, I finish with three authoritative and free Internet sources!

Grave art of the 1800s was Victorian in sentiment and style. Key elements include:

· Life-like angels: often portrayed with expressions of agonizing grief.

· Arches in the shape of a gravestone and/or in decoration. An arch symbolizes victory over death.

· Broken column. Three-dimensional or a decoration, a broken column indicates that the deceased was a family patriarch. This tidbit of info is especially helpfully when a gravestone inscription has weathered beyond recognition.

· Open book/Bible: the deceased was a highly regarded teacher or ordained minister. Ordained is an important clue as there were hundreds of lay ministers in the 1800s.

· Anchor/ships: Seafaring profession, but not necessarily in the military. This was before military emblems became popular. Don’t be fooled, but you can fool your readership, good device for plot confusion!

· Breasts! As portrayed by a pair of gourds or pomegranates. This symbolizes nourishment of the soul. Potential here for all sorts of creative musing and imagery!

· Bugle(s): As tempting as it would be to think military, you’d be wrong (a red herring?). In Victorian times, a bugle symbolized heralding the soul into Heaven.

· Corn: Not a symbol of farming. Another red herring, perhaps? An ear of corn, a stalk or a field indicated the decedent lived to a very elderly age… (Perhaps immortal in some form or another?).

· Portals, usually an archway, door, path, or road indicate the route of an eternal journey. Take note, there is no mention as to where the journey leads to. Heaven or Hell… or another place?

· Snake with its tail in its mouth. Popular in the least decade, and greatly misunderstood, this symbol is rooted in the ancient Celtic beliefs of founding ancestors in America and elsewhere. Right out of Ireland and the U.K., the Celtic Snake represents everlasting life in Heaven. I found the Celtic Snake on graves dating back to the 1700s in Anglican/Episcopal church graveyards of Virginia’s historic tidewater region.

Death Goes Deco in the 1900s: Victorian sentimental art gave way to Art Deco in the early 1900s. Art Deco style remained popular up to World War II. Key elements include:

· Geometric, angular and stepped patterns such as Greco-Roman lines, Greek key and Egyptian pyramid. Think mythological!

· Birds stylized in Deco motifs to represent: flying = resurrection and/or perched = at peace.

· Butterfly, a short-lived life, most often cause of death was an illness. During the great flu epidemic of 1918, from which thousands of people died in a brief time frame, more butterflies were requested for grave art than any other symbol!

· Sun rising and setting paired on opposing sides of a gravestone represent birth (rising) and death (setting) with a long successful life in-between. This motif was popular in the Southwest and lent itself to Deco Southwest Indian style.

· Tree trunk chopped down indicates a life cut short, often by a willful act of murder or suicide.

· Urn with a lit flame depicts a person of charitable heart and goodwill, a dedicated servant to the community. (Hmm…or was the person just a ruse?)

· Winged face, be it the head of a cherub (child) angel (female) or skull (male) indicates a soul in flight… to where?

The Final List: Many motifs have remained fashionable through all centuries including:

· Lambs, cherubs, sprouting flowers or buds depict children.

· Flowers, especially rose, lily or poppies represent women.

· Botanicals such as ivy, oak or acorn depict men.

· Thistle for Scottish.

· Shamrock for Irish

· Fleur-de-lis (white lily in profile) for French. In the U.S.: particularly in Louisiana.

Additionally, numerous cultural, ethnic, lineage and fraternal societies have art and symbols uniquely attached to them. I advise researching these symbols through a particular society’s Web site and I advise not using an all-purpose one-stop source for information. (That so-called encyclopedia that’s Online). Conduct an Internet search for the society of interest and look for an official source.

Just the Facts, Please: Are you ready to dig deeper into the art of Death? Here’s some excellent free Internet sources:

· Find a Grave. Still looking for Elvis? Or maybe a great-grandparent? Or maybe you want to window shop for a creative idea, as all good writers do from time to time. Use the name search feature to locate a decedent’s grave or peruse cities of the dead using the cemetery location search. Good research tool to learn more about grave art because photos are often in the results.

· Military Funeral Customs. No better source than U.S. Arlington National Cemetery.

· Understanding Funeral Customs is an insider site devoted to educating the professional journalism community with factual information regarding various funeral customs around the world. Use the ‘tips on topics’ menu on the right or type in ‘funeral’ in the search box at the top. Fascinating!

Dead End. Visit me Online:

In June and July I am the guest on numerous paranormal talk radio shows and will discuss a variety of topics near and dear to my heart: Blood Memory, Quiet Wakefulness, Belief in Ghosts, and more on Grave Art. Stop by and say hello… and may we all R.I.P.!


Anthology Authors said...

Fascinating blog. Next time I visit a cemetery, I will certainly be looking closer at the gravestones. :)

I have been in search of my genealogy for some time now. I have proof my ancestors (several) fought in the American Revolution, but proving the link has been challenging. Why? My family moved West. The family Bible was either lost on the trip or with some unknown branch. The family settled in Oregon. In the late 1800s, there was a flood that destroyed country records. We are piecing things together, but it's very time consuming. I love a good puzzle, though. I'll get there. We only have one more piece to least on one side. :)

Anonymous said...

Welcome! Great post!