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.

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Suffolk, Virginia: United States Colored Troops of Oak Lawn Cemetery (est. 1885)

(Originally posted on The Historic Oak Lawn Cemetery Foundation)

Unidentified African American soldier in Union cavalry uniform with cavalry saber. Library of Congress.

Private Moses Randall – Company A, 38th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry

Pvt. Moses Randall Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton
Pvt. Moses Randall, Co. A, 38th U. S Colored Infantry. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2014. All rights reserved.
  • Born about 1832, Nansemond County, Virginia
  • Enlistment: January 5, 1864, Norfolk, Virginia
  • Muster: January 23, 1864, Norfolk, Virginia
  • Discharge: January 25, 1867, Indianola, Texas
  • Spouse: Ann Eliza Randall
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On Memorial Day, Reflecting on African-American History – The National Trust for Historic Preservation

First Memorial Day plaque Charleston SC Copyright Nadia Orton 2015
Plaque honoring the first Memorial Day in the United States. Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, September 6, 2015

Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.

Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.

My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.

They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…