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’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.
Some of the most common sights in African American cemeteries are ceremonial plantings, placed by family or friends, sometimes in lieu of a headstone. Pictured above is yucca, a symbol of the living spirit. Even amidst the overgrowth, one can easily spot the spines of yucca plants throughout the cemetery.
On many family plots, one can spot other types of plantings, some ornamental in nature, such as the perennials in the Ferguson Family plot.
IVY: Death, eternal life (evergreen), affection.” (DHR, 2012)
There’s an abundance of ivy throughout Evergreen Cemetery, but the ivy to really pay attention to is on some of the headstones. The headstone of Laura Jones Brown (ca. 1862-1917), daughter of Robert and Rachel, and wife of Ephraim Brown (ca. 1860-1937), contains images of ivy. There is also a symbol of the anchor, which could mean an association with Christianity, or steadfastness. The couple were married on April 15, 1886, Richmond, Virginia.
Lily of the Valley
What I first thought was the symbol of the “Broken Flower,” representing a life cut short, appears more like the “Lily of the Valley,” representing “purity, rebirth, new life,” (DHR, 2012)
Little William Morris Kersey (1877-1888) was the son of John Benjamin Frank Kersey (ca. 1845-1912), longtime personal porter to railroad owner Major E. T. D. Myers, and Alice Hill Thomas Kersey Ford (1856-1942). His tablet gravestone was designed by J. S. Gardner, a local stonemason, who passed away in 1918. He too, is buried somewhere in Evergreen Cemetery.
“MILITARY — 20th Century military-issue headstones are generally uniform in size and color, and contain minimal iconography (indicative of a soldier’s religious affiliation or association with the Union or the Confederacy” (DHR, 2012).
Headstones of military issue are usually fairly easy to spot. Most are 39-42 inches tall, 12 inches wide, and 4 inches thick. Military gravestones issued prior to 1903 were 12 inches tall, ten inches wide, and four inches thick. African American Civil War (Union) veterans’ headstones are commonly marked with the letters “USCT,” for “United States Colored Troops,” “U. S. C. INF,” “U. S. C. CAV,”or “G. A. R.,” which stands for “Grand Army of the Republic.”
The gravestone of 1st Sgt. Henry Wheaton, of the 62nd U. S. Colored Infantry, is the first rediscovered Civil War veteran in Evergreen Cemetery, taken by volunteer Bill Pahnelas. After a little research, I added Henry’s wife, Harriett Harris Wheaton, and Harriett’s mother, Louisa Harris (d. 1915), to the FindaGrave database on June 29 and August 2, 2015, and verified the information with his pension file from the National Archives in 2016. Their headstones were located by volunteers two years later.
Mourning/The Inverted Torch
“INVERTED TORCH – The “flame of life” snuffed out” (DHR, 2012)
The gravestone of Fannie Cooper, a domestic, is more of a commercial style, which may have been ordered from Sears, or local monument company. It has several motifs, the inverted torch, ivy (along the base), and lilies, that represent “purity, chastity, or innocence.” (DHR, 2012)
“CROSS – Rare prior to the Civil War. Associated with the Christian and Eastern Orthodox faiths, represents salvation through belief in the Christian God….
“PALM FROND – Resurrection (at base of cross) (DHR, 2012)
“CROSS with vines or other plants, known as the “living cross,” symbol of life everlasting in association with Biblical teaching” (DHR, 2012)
The grave of Lottie Nicholas, a cook, daughter of Richard Nicholas and Bettie Mosby. Inscription: “In Memory of our true and loyal friend/Lottie Nickols/ who entered into rest/March 7, 1918/Faithful unto death/Erected by Mr. & Mrs. Fred Wm Scott.”
The gravestone of Albert Roy Patterson (1891-1942), bears the Elks symbol, with palm fronds along the sides of the main panel and bottom
Albert Roy Patterson was the son of Richard and Rosa Patterson, from Mecklenburg County, Virginia. A pastry cook by occupation, he married Nannie Brooks on March 23, 1916, Richmond, Virginia.
Inscription: “My Beloved Husband/ Albert R. Patterson/Born Nov 7, 1891/Died May 3, 1942/Elks Wm Lodge No. 11/Astoria Benf Club/Wall Street Benf Club/B P O of Reindeer (author note: “Benevolent Protective Order of Reindeer”). Note: The Astoria Beneficial Club was organized in Richmond, Virginia in 1901
“Grave goods are normally white–be they seashell, plaster, light bulb, or ceramic container. The preference for white might be traced to Bakongo belief that their deceased ancestors were white in color, therefore white was the color of death.” John Michael Vlach, By the Work of Their Hands
Conch shells decorating the gravesite of William H. Watson (1863-1913) and Rosa E. Freeman (ca. 1862-1931). Rosa E. Freeman Watson was a board member of the Woman’s Union, along with Vice-President Maggie Lena Walker, which paid sick and death benefits to its members. The organization was housed in the St. Luke’s Building.
Shells are a Kongo-inspired tradition common in the Southern United States, especially in the Carolina Lowcountry.
“The shells stand for the sea. The sea brought us, the sea shall take us back. So the shells upon our graves stand for the water, the means of glory and the land of demise.” (Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.)
The Gates of Heaven
The gravestone of Alice Hill Thomas Kersey Ford (mother of William Morris Kersey featured above), bears the motifs of the “Gates of Heaven,” “confirmation that the deceased has been granted admittance,” (DHR, 2012).
Part of the inscription reads “By Ben and Carlotta,” likely Benjamin Kersey and Carlotta Estelle Kersey, two of Alice’s children by John Benjamin Frank Kersey, and siblings of William Morris Kersey (1877-1888).
The gravestone of Powell B. Williams, Sr., also contains the Gates of Heaven motif. The variation in the center is the figure of an Elk, which is fitting, as Mr. Williams was the founder of the Williams Lodge of Elks, No. 11, the same lodge in which Albert Roy Patterson (featured above), held membership.
P. B. Williams, Sr., was the son of John Marshall Williams (ca. 1846-1914), coachman to P. H. Mayo, and Rachel Sircus Williams (ca. 1849-1930). A letter carrier by occupation, Powell was named after P. H. Mayo by his father, John Marshall Williams.
“ANGELS – Messengers of God, Symbols of guardianship, divine intervention, answers to prayer” (DHR, 2012).
The gravestone of Roberta Brent Lester, daughter of William and Ella Henrietta Brent. Roberta’s roots were tied to the Huguenot District of Powhatan County, Virginia. Her surname is misspelled on the base of her gravestone. Roberta married Joseph Lester (ca. 1880-1939), of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1895.