John Veverka & Associates

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From interpretive planning for castles in Wales for the National Trust and bird sanctuaries in Michigan for the Kellogg Biological Station, to interpretive training in Alabama for the US Army Corps of Engineers, and museum exhibit evaluation in Wisconsin - (bottom row) and critiquing ancient temples interpretation on Malta for Malta Heritage, prehistoric archaeological site interpretation in Utah for Nine Mile Canyon/BLM, and docent/interpretive staff training for the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, we do that - and more!

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                        An Introduction to
      Interpreting Cemeteries and Gravestones


                                John A. Veverka

                   Gravestone Art winged cherub.jpg (40828 bytes)

            The flying winged cherub from a 1789 gravestone
            symbolizes the flight of the soul from mortal man.

     I first became interested in gravestone and cemetery interpretation many years ago while attending an Association of Interpretive Naturalists regional meeting in Indiana. One of the events included a visit to Spring Mill State Park and discussions about their cemetery interpretation which was an outstanding experience.

     Since that time I have been involved with Community Interpretive Planning as part of heritage tourism development.  For all of the communities I have worked with, some interest in interpretive services for their cemeteries always came up. In fact, cemetery interpretation and gravestone interpretation is very popular and growing in interest. Some cities, like the community of Belvidere in Illinois, incorporate cemetery interpretive programs, both guided and self-guided, into their community history and heritage interpretation. The interpretation here not only includes the symbols and meanings of the stones and their designs, but the historic "founding fathers" and key historical figures from the community. These programs are highly attended and very successful.

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Some of the more unusual gravestones to be seen in the Belvidere
Cemetery. The tree trunks are somewhat unique for Illinois and
represent the brevity of life. The number of broken branches can
indicate deceased family members buried at that site as well.

In addition to the wealth of unusual grave stones in the Belvidere Cemetery, the Cemetery also has some unique architecture as well, the Frank Lloyd Wright Pettit Memorial Chapel - a historic facility built in 1907 that is still being used, and currently under restoration. This is an important part of the total cemetery interpretive program.

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Pettit Memorial Chapel, Belvidere Cemetery,
Belvidere, IL.

Planning for Cemetery and Gravestone Interpretive Programs or Services.

If you are interested in providing a community heritage interpretation program using a local historic cemetery, here are some steps to consider:

- Remember that this is a cemetery. Any and all interpretive guided programs or tours, and self-guiding interpretation must be respectful of the site you are in.

- Check into the need to acquire permission to use the cemetery.

- Be mindful of how many visitors you could manage in the cemetery at any one time, and any damage that might occur (soil/grass erosion, etc.).

- If you are considering doing any rubbings of the stones, be sure that you use techniques that will not damage them.

- Plan your objectives well - what do you want the interpretive programs to accomplish?

- Clearly plan what elements you want to interpret:
Gravestone art/designs and their historic meanings.
Gravestones as a social statement.
Gravestone carvers
Historical figures from the communities past.
Communities relationships to conflicts (Revolutionary War, Civil War, etc.).
Social stories and conflict (where were the black community members buried?)
Funeral practices (above ground vaults, wooden caskets, etc.).

- Once you have decided upon what elements you want to interpret, begin your research into that subject. I will provide some excellent references and web sites at the end of this article to help get you started.

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The Red Oak Cemetery (above photo) located near Ripley, Ohio is a good candidate for interpretation, as it is located near the newly designated Ohio River road Scenic Byway.  These small cemeteries are full of history and stories and can give community visitors a real sense of the past and heritage of the region.

     Some small community cemeteries can be very powerful even if they are lacking in gravestones. The Dougherty-Miller Cemetery located in Jefferson County (not far from Madison), Indiana is an example of this (below photo).  I visited the cemetery site as part of developing a regional community interpretive plan for Jefferson County.

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The Dougherty-Miller Cemetery, outside of Madison, Indiana.  This was a black cemetery from the late 1800's. Most of the headstones would have been wooden, and have long since disappeared. Only the depressions of the graves can been seen,  highlighted by a light snow from the day before.

This cemetery, for blacks in the late 1800's, was almost lost amongst the trees. The site is now being cleared and restored. When you walk into a site like this one, and have first person interpretation of "who, what, when, and why", it is sad and sobering. The day I visited the site a light snow had fallen, highlighting the many grave sites without any markers. This is a powerful and important part of local history, and the interpretive experience here will send chills down your back - and the memory of your visit will linger. There are only a few headstones showing today, like the one below, of a black civil war veteran who could only be buried here.

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The weathered stone of a black Civil War soldier is one of the only
visible stones at the Dougherty-Miller cemetery.

The Story on the Stones - Interpreting symbols and their meanings.

     Of course, one of the most interesting parts of gravestone interpretation for most visitors is the use of art and symbols on many older stones. This is something that will need to be researched for any cemetery you might be interested in interpreting, as there is some change in designs and types of symbols used over time. There is also a design change as you look at cemeteries from the east coast and move west. So you'll need to find out just what part of the gravestone art story you have. There are lots of reference books for that, but here are some very common symbols.

Cemetery - Red Oak Cemetery - Ripley OH.jpg (355664 bytes)

This stone (above photo)  from the Red Oak Cemetery, Ripley, Ohio, has a common feature, the willow tree.  The tree represents life, knowledge, the fall of man through sin, human fruition or frailty.  Note that the branches on the right have been broken off and there is a lamb under the tree.  The lamb represents innocence, indicating that this is the grave of a youngster or teenager.

     The following photo shows another tree design of which there are many varieties.  Note how this design differs from the previous one.   Different tree (or other symbol) styles may represent different stone carvers styles, and can often be traced back to master stone carvers from the east coast from the 1600's and 1700's.  As master carvers taught their apprentices, the apprentices followed that particular style.  As they moved westward, their designs mirrored those of the master they worked under.  In time they would evolve their own unique design style - their own "design fingerprint".

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Another common design on gravestones is the hand/finger pointing up. This symbolized the pathway to heaven, or heavenly reward.

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This stone in the Blood Cemetery, Clinton County, MI, illustrates the common design of the finger/hand pointing up.  The garland around the hand symbolizes victory over death.

     Another common symbol is the use of Clasped Hands which symbolizes "farewell" or hope of meeting in eternity.

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Clasped hands design from the Red Oak Cemetery.  The banner above the hands says "farewell".


     Another common gravestone symbol is the use of flowers, found mainly on women's gravestones.

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This stone from the Blood Cemetery, Clinton County, MI, illustrates a common flower design.  The stone also illustrates the slow erosion effect of wind and weather on the limestone over time.

     Of course, some of the older gravestones in New England can have some exceptional carvings on them, such as the use of skulls, which symbolize the transitory nature of earthly life, penitence, and mortality, like the example below.

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     But some gravestones can be much simpler, and may lack any art work at all. Some stones, like the one below, may have been done "on a budget", the family not being able to afford a well-known stone carver, not have a stone carver available or the stone work was done by a family member or friend. In this case a simple flower design at the top, and an epitaph. This stone is from the Belpre, Ohio Cemetery and dates from 1804. The bottom epitaph says "Death is a debt to nature which I have paid, and so will you".   Note that you can have an interpretive program just based on epitaphs!

Cemetary - Belpre OH.jpg (274107 bytes)
A revolutionary war era gravestone from Belpre, Ohio.  from one of the original settlers into this part of  Ohio, probably settling here shortly after the revolutionary war ended.

     Of course, these are just a few of the common symbols that you might find on older gravestones, there are hundreds of different designs and symbols. Here are just a few symbols and their meanings from "Tomb With A View's Guide to Commemorative Motifs, Mourning Images, and Memento Mori"(an internet web site):

Anchor - Hope, seaman.
Angels - Rebirth, protection, wisdom, mercy, divine love.
Bird - Eternal live, winged soul, spirituality.
Chain with three links - Trinity, faith, Odd Fellows
Column - Nobel life
Frog - Worldly pleasure, sin.
Ivy - Fidelity, attachment, undying affection.
Poppies - Eternal sleep.
Rope Circle - Eternity.
Rose - Victory, pride, triumphant love, purity.
Tree - Life, knowledge.
Tree Trunk, Leaning - Short interrupted life, mourning.
Urn - Immortality, death of the body and its return to dust.
Wreath on Skull - Victory of death over life.

     This has just been a sampling of the interpretive possibilities for cemeteries and gravestones as part of community heritage interpretation and tourism development. In Freeman Tilden's terms (Interpreting our Heritage, 1954), this is something we can all RELATE to, as eventually, as one gravestone noted: As I am now, you shall be too!   This can be one of the most powerful tools we have for interpreting the true nature of our communities, and our heritage.   The stories are all there; people, events, folk art, a history textbook carved in stone waiting to be read.

    I hope you will consider this aspect of community or historic interpretation if it is appropriate to your site or stories. The interpretive experience will be powerful and memorable, helping visitors and local residents alike truly understand their local history. Here are some references to help you get started.


Ludwig, Allen. "Graven Images - New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols - 1650 -1815." Wesleyan University Press, Hanover, NH.

Ridlen, Susanne S. "Tree-Stump Tombstones: A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana."  Old Richardville Publications, IN

"Tomb With a View's Guide to commemorative Motifs, Mourning Images, and Memento Mori" - internet web site:

For other information on cemetery and gravestone studies contact: The Association for Gravestone Studies, 278 Main St., Suite 207, Greenfield, MA 10301; or at:

John Veverka

PO Box 189

Laingsburg, MI 48848