Richmond, Virginia: Evergreen Cemetery, funerary iconography

December 18, 2018. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Funerary iconography can be defined as the identification of symbols and motifs and the interpretation of their cultural meaning. Over the last eleven years, I’ve been fortunate to visit hundreds of cemeteries in multiple states, and have been able to spot very unique headstones containing intricate icons and symbols. Sometimes, the headstones are handmade, such as the gravestone of Matilda Ella Hale Nakano, of Portsmouth, Virginia, constructed and designed by her husband, a Japanese national.

Matilda Ella Hale Nakano - Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Portsmouth Va.
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, June 21, 2012, Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, all rights reserved.

Matilda Ella’s ancestral roots were tied to Bertie and Hertford counties, North Carolina. The kanji at the base of Matilda Ella’s gravestone indicates that her husband, Hosuke, made the gravestone himself. The top of the gravestone contains images of ivy, denoting eternal life and/or affection, and the “crown and cross,” representing redemption through faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

In other cases, the families would order a stone from the U. S. Government or monument company, and request personal touches at an additional cost, like the gravestone of Pvt. Thomas Fisher, of the 36th U. S. Colored Infantry, in New Bern, North Carolina, whose military-issue headstone contains a masonic emblem of the square and compass, by his wife, Lucy Fisher.


In Richmond, I’m in my sixth year of researching interments of Evergreen Cemetery, and have documented 7,245 to date, most covering the period where there are no official interment records (pre-1926). However, my physical and health limitations have hindered my ability to visit as often as I would like. Still, I’ve managed to snag enough photos to provide a small peek into this amazing site, and plan more photo sessions in the near future.

Between May 18-19, 2012, I attended a cemetery seminar in Eastville, Virginia, conducted by representatives from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Part of that seminar involved a discussion of funerary iconography. Here, I share some of that valuable insight, with examples of some of the gravestones that bear those symbols in Evergreen Cemetery.

Alumna takes care of sacred spaces – Duke Magazine

Thanks, Janine!

Nadia Orton ’98 made a pledge to document her family lineage. It’s turned into a mission to preserve disappearing and discarded history

Nadia Orton ’98 steps carefully around concrete vaults and sunken spots where pine caskets have collapsed inside century- old graves, her knee-high camo boots laced tight.

“I’ve had snakes and stray dogs come out of holes like that,” Orton says, nodding at a grave split in two by a fallen tree branch. Her family insists on the snake boots, a walking stick, a companion.

They tell her, “We know you love history, but you’re not supposed to be part of it yet.”

So the boots are always in the car. So are the thin purple gardening gloves she pulls on to protect her hands from her own impatience to sweep aside pine needles and poison ivy and run a finger over the engravings there, thinned by weather and time.

It is cool out, but still Orton has had to stay home and rest up for five days in order to muster the energy for this tour of Oak Lawn, an unmarked black cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia. The lupus that dogged her at Duke is dragging on her still, after kidney failure and dialysis, and finally a transplant, but it was also her lupus that led her on this quest to preserve black and African-American gravesites. Continue reading

Suffolk, Virginia: Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Open House

We had a great day on Saturday, February 9, 2019, at the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Open House! Thanks to all who braved the cold to honor this sacred ground, including: the members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation – President Reginald H. Dirtion, Vice-President Rev. Oulaniece Saunders, Treasurer Wilbur Holland, Jr., Historian Nadia K. Orton; Delegate C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr., chief sponsor, HB 2311; Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett (Suffolk); Suffolk Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 5; Frances McNair; Lt. Col./Chaplain William Burrell (USAF), President, Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.; Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harry Quinton; Mike Lane, Lane Environmental Consultants; Rev. Baker; the Orton Family. Also, huge thanks to M/M Hinton of Eye Catch Photos!

(Photos: courtesy R. Hinton, Eye Catch Photos, and Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved)

Members of the Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation with Frances McNair (left), and Delegate C. E. Cliff Hayes, Jr. (Dist. 77, center); Dennis Orton, and Suffolk Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 5
The HIstoric Oak Lawn Foundation with Lt. Col./ Chaplain Dr. Bill Burrell (USAF), President, Tidewater Chapter, Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (left), and Dr. Harry Quinton, Tuskegee Airman (right), at the gravesite of 1st Lt. William H. Walker (1919-1943), Tuskegee Airman