Grave Marker Erector Set

DR. WILLIAM HANNA

DIED JANUARY 8, 1878

AGED 33 YRS. 9 MOS. 22 DAYS

HUSBAND & FATHER, WE MISS THEE.

WE SHALL NOT MEET AGAIN, GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.

BLESSED ARE THE DEAD WHICH DIE IN THE LORD.

The tallest grave marker in the tiny Center Grove Cemetery, along Highway 46, is a 10 or 12-foot zinc marker.  These markers were produced and sold by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Though the company billed the markers as “white bronze” they were actually cast zinc.  The markers are distinguishable by their bluish-gray tint.

The company set up their first subsidiary in Detroit, Michigan. Others followed in Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Thomas, Ontario, Des Moines, and Chicago. Enterprising salesmen carried a catalog door-to-door with them to show customers the many styles and price ranges of the product line. In many cemeteries you can find evidence of highly successful salesmen who sold a large number of the markers. The zinc markers were produced beginning in the 1870s until the company closed shop in 1912.

These grave markers came in a wide assortment of sizes and shapes and were somewhat like grave marker erector sets. The more elaborate markers had a shell of sorts and then various panels could be attached according to the tastes of the family ordering the grave marker. In this way, each marker could be “customized” to the tastes of the individual.

Urn

This monument has a two-handle urn inside an architectural feature that is part of a spire topped with a finial. The urn is an ubiquitous funerary motif symbolizing death and mortality.  The irony of the urn being such a popular 19th Century funerary symbol is that very few people were cremated when the urn motif was at the height of its popularity.  For instance, during the eight years from 1876 until 1884, only 41 Americans were cremated.  Though the number of cremations in the United States slowly increased, by the 1950s only less 4% of our dead were cremated.  Cremation, though, has been increasing each decade: 1960–3.56%; 1970–4.59%; 1980–9.72%; 1990–17.13%; 2000–26.24%; 2010–35.93%.  Some are predicting that by 2025, almost half of our dead will be cremated.  Maybe the urn will re-emerge as a symbol for the 21st Century.

Clasping Hands

Another common motif found in American cemeteries are—clasping hands.  The clasping hands on this gravestone likely represents holy matrimony, symbolizing the holy union between a man and a woman. Often one hand of the motif is clearly the hand of the female, her cuff ruffled, with the hand on the other side depicting a shirt’s cuff barely visible from underneath a suit jacket, though neither hand displays a cuff male or female in this example.  Clasping hands can also represent the brotherhood of the union symbolizing the brethren of workers clasped in the making of something together, sharing their labor bonded by common work.  Lastly, the motif can also signify a farewell handshake life on earth and the welcome to Heaven, leaving behind what they have known on earth for the sublime pleasures of Heaven.

Cross and Crown

The crown is a symbol of glory and victory over death.  The reward awaits in Heaven where the victor will receive a crown of victory. The cross represents the suffering of Jesus.

Masonic symbol

Inside the shield on one of the four sides of this marker is the most recognizable emblem of the Freemasons, the square and compasses.  In this example the letter “G” appears in the middle of the emblem.  Often the emblem is seen without the letter “G”. Each component of the symbol represents a different Masonic orthodoxy, though, these are not hard and fast: The compasses represent the boundaries of wisdom a person should have the strength to circumscribe and stay within. The square symbolizes virtue in all actions, just as the expression “square deal” means treating people with fairness. The letter “G” seems to have more than one meaning.  It could possibly mean God, as in the creator of the universe; or Gimel, which is the word for the third letter of many Semitic languages.  The number three is significant to many Masonic rituals and beliefs.  Some also believe the “G” may represent geometry.

Broken Chain

In the cemetery, much of the iconography represents a life ended—the winged death’s head, the hanging bud, the broken wheel, the incomplete circle, the column that is broken. This grave marker has a chain that formed into a circle that has a broken link.  This motif essentially combines two symbols representing the end of life—the broken chain and the broken circle.  The symbolism of the broken chain dates dating to Medieval times when people believed that the soul could be held to the body by a “golden chain.” Once the chain was broken, the soul took flight and rose from the body leaving Earth and ascended to Heaven.

Broken bud or flower

The broken bud represents the flower that did not bloom into full blossom, the life that was cut short before it had a chance to grow to adulthood.  The broken flower represents an adult that did grow to maturity but has died—yet another mortality symbol.  The flower in this case is a rose, which is the universal symbol of love.

Kneeling Angel

When looking at gravestones, there is always room for interpretation.  Elisabeth L. Roark wrote an article about angels titled, “Embodying Immortality: Angels in America’s Rural Garden Cemeteries, 1850—1900”, pages 56 – 111, 2007 edition of Markers, XXIV, in which she categorized the eight most commonly found types of graveyard angels—grouped by the task they performed: soul-bearing; praying; decorating and guarding; pointing; recording; trumpeting; sword-bearing (archangel Michael); and child angels. The winged protectors served to watch over the “soul while living, removed occasions of sin and provided protection when danger threatened, interceded on their charges’ behalf, attended at death, eased the transition to the next world, conducted the soul to Heaven, and looked after the grave site and the deceased’s remains until resurrection.”  These were busy angels. In addition to those duties, the praying angels served as an intercessor conveying messages from their charges to Heaven. Though not in this example, these angels are often looking upward toward the Heavens, hands clasped together in prayer, sometimes coupled with emblems of faith, such as, anchors and crosses, often clad in toga-like clothing.

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