Years ago, my friend, Kathryn Epperson Tupper, told me the story about a visit she made to the Magnolia Cemetery with her son, Philip, when he was about six years old. They had gone to place flowers on her father’s grave for Memorial Day. The little boy’s blue eyes darted around the cemetery as he noticed the different shapes and sizes of gravestones, particularly the Grand Army of the Republic metal markers placed next to the Civil War veteran’s graves. The markers are five-pointed stars made of cast iron with the letters G.A.R. in the middle of the marker and placed next a veteran’s tombstone. The Magnolia Cemetery is one of the older cemeteries in the county and has a great many Civil War veteran’s graves. Philip exhuberantly ran from one star-shaped marker to another when he finally squealed with delight, “They sure do have a lotta sheriffs buried here!”
When she told me the story, I realized that while most adults would not make the mistake regarding the star-shaped marker’s meaning that six-year old Philip made, but many people who walk through a cemetery are most likely unaware that nearly every symbol, and even some of the gravestone shapes have meanings.
In the introduction to Spoon River Anthology, May Swenson writes that Edgar Lee Masters’ collection of poems is about “the citizens of Spoon River–the obscure and ordinary as well as the prominent, the criminal, the eccentric, the elect–on all of whom life had passed its unexceptional sentence and consigned to the same grassy prison. He has them testify, as if the tombstones had voices…”
I contend that gravestones do have voices. Not voices that can be heard, but ones that can be measured and recorded. Voices that can tell us much if we observe carefully. The symbols, epitaphs, and the gravestones themselves give us clues about how society feels about death, religion, grieving, children, and about all sorts of other things. All we have to do is observe and educate ourselves.