What Do You Want on Your Tombstone?

As a continuation of my Memorial Day Weekend post, I found there was more to share about my cemetery visitations. 

Getting ready  for Memorial Day this past week, I visited ten different cemeteries all over the Chicago area; my parents, my husband’s parents and grandparents, my paternal and maternal grandparents, my godparents, my cousin,  my son’s grave, Auntie Lil’s family plots and my friend’s gravestone. In my mini-marathon of cemetery visits experienced some fantastic old grave markers. 

Through my lifetime of tending graves in cemeteries, I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty and artistry of memorial stones by unknown artisans; the sadness they sometimes portray as well as the lives they celebrate, the intricate carving, the changing styles as time moves forward, the difference in fonts used for males, females, or children, and the ageless permanence of stone.

The wrought iron fence surrounding this family plot is beginning to age but the stones remain like new.

My favorite cemeteries are those with big shade trees dotting the landscape giving a reprieve from the sun, big above ground level stones, large family plots with every stone a story in the family dynamic, substantial-size carved stones with figures or fake tree stumps, geometric stones and artistic representations of what was important to the person now gone from life. 

Take out the flowers and you would think this just a beautiful park space.

Sadly with regard to most cemeteries, we have become a society of convenience – what determines convenient? The ease of upkeep? The ease of finding a memorial? The clean look of a park without any the encumbrances of tombstones? What is convenient for everyone, not thinking about the past so much as keeping our eye on the future without regard to the idea of those who went before, those that helped make us what we are today and should be honored. 

Years ago cemeteries were held in high regard. Families planned visits complete with a picnic almost like family reunions to visit a grave on a significant date or holiday.  These places used to illicit respect and honor.  Today, cemeteries are seen by so many as just a place for dead people that cannot affect any type of change, so why bother.  The cost of keeping a cemetery tidy is staggering and markers, while placed to remember our loved ones, are now too often placed at grade level to allow landscapers to mow over the stones with one pass not having to concern the workers with the arduous task of hand trimming. So, unfortunately the cemeteries of the past are just that, the past.  Not a thing for now only a thing to appreciate from a rear view mirror.

A tombstone used to tell a story through symbolism, give some idea of the person’s life, and how much their family valued that life. A tombstone used to have character; it used to make a statement. Not so much any more but, lucky for those of us that appreciate the thought and time put into marking a person’s passing some truly spectacular tombstones remain as a testament to a time past.

This person’s family really loved and valued her and yes, that angel is life size.

I love the artistry of stone carving, a lost art it seems.  This past week visiting so many different cemeteries I saw many flamboyant markers, from a time not so long ago that paid homage to the person’s life being remembered and honored.

I thought I’d share some of my favorites:

This stone looked from a distance like a podium, a lectern or pulpit. I had to stop. It made me wonder about the Adam family memorialized on this family stone. Were they a family of orators? ministers? librarians? Who knows but, I appreciate the tree symbolism: the long life of an oak tree, a tree of life, or the life of Christ represented as a tree. The craggy bark on the stone stump holding the family book was decorated with leaves at the base and even some small mushrooms giving it a more lifelike appearance. The most recent addition to this family stone was almost thirty years ago so it could still be used for future members of this family. I love the idea of adding names to the family book, almost like an archive.

In a cemetery near my home, the founders of our town were immortalized in a good size family plot decorated with a large family stone depicting a train held aloft by three substantial columns topped by a shroud draped urn. The family made their fortune in railroads. Faux log fence with faux log planters surround the family plot creating a boundary from the surrounding graves. Sadly it looks like the family no longer visits or tends the graves, the space needs attention.

Some stones have such an appealing sculptural quality showcasing the artistry of unknown artisans. I love the modern stones as well as the vintage stones and appreciate the time and effort needed to execute such lovely works of art. It brings me so much happiness to see 21st century stones mimicking their older counterparts maybe not as ostentatious but equally beautiful.

The saddest stones are those that time washed away the sentiments originally carved into the stone and those toppled by the ravages of time and weather.

One of my favorite things in a cemetery? Benches. Families that gave enough thought to the future and those persons visiting to provide a bench to rest and reflect on a life well lived. Sometimes the bench is the headstone, other times the bench is set at the side of the family plot to provide a place for a quiet respite.

For the past 40 years my favorite stone in any of our local cemeteries is a impressive family stone; a cube standing on point. This large cube, centrally located, dominates a family plot and each side of the cube only lists one family member of the Anders family. The first date on the stone: born 1858, died 1886. The most recent addition: died 1929. Does that mean this stone was carved in 1886? or possibly at some later time and the names from earlier burials were just added? I like to think this was a family of artisans with very forward thinking style. It is definitely memorable and eye-catching in a cemetery of traditional stone markers.

Given what I know about cemeteries, gravestones, and the cost of tending a grave, I do not know what I would want on my headstone. I’ll have to give it some more thought. What do you want on your tombstone?

2 comments

  1. First, I have no wish for a tombstone as I would not wish to be buried but maybe a resting seat in some favourite place, as I and my siblings did for my mother.

    We have a cemetery close to where we live, dating mainly from the 19th century, when Bradford was the world centre for wool, which has many magnificent ‘tombstones’; although I’ve done quite a lot of photography in it I have not recorded that anywhere.

    However, abandoned cemeteries make good photographic subjects and of one I discovered I did put a photo on my other blog (for the moment posts on it are suspended); the picture is at:

    https://grumpytykepix.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/hidden-bradford-olympus-om4-kodak-c-41-black-white-400/

    We do of course have many church graveyards here in the UK with tombstones going back to the 17th century, or even further, and they always make for a fascinating visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Something about the permanence of stone carving appeals to me. Over the years of visiting graveyards, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry and the unsung artist going about the work of carving these permanent representations of a life. I too have no wish to have a tombstone but wish to be cremated and my ashes disbursed. I do however like the idea of a resting seat. The seats and benches I’ve seen with a family name on them seem to suit the space they occupy in a graveyard and give a much needed space to sit for a spell and reflect.
      Thanks for sharing your photo of the old graveyard. I wish I could read the epitaphs carved into the flat stones. I find those old sentiments charming and of historic interest. Here in the Midwest, we do not often see stones with a story of someone’s life; just birthdate and deathdate with an occasional phrase to sum up an entire life.

      Liked by 1 person

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