- Associated Press - Sunday, September 6, 2015

BURLINGTON, Wash. (AP) - Gravestones stand as strong and silent sentinels, dotting a landscape awash with emotion.

Much like the individuals for whom they mark a final resting place, the gravestones have stories to tell; not ones necessarily taken to the grave by the deceased but engraved upon the stone facade for others to ponder, recall and - in many instances - research.

“The Silent Stones Speak” Cemetery Tour, organized by the Burlington Historical Society, set out on a balmy evening to learn what hidden messages stood the test of time - while in plain sight - at Green Hills Memorial Cemetery.

“I love cemeteries,” said Lori Walton of Burlington. “I find them absolutely fascinating. Actually, I am drawn to them. I want to know the stories, what happened during their lives. I also love history and cemeteries are full of history. They are just so cool.”

Gail and John Boggs of Concrete were two of about 50 participants on the tour.

“We love history,” Gail said. “We are part of the Concrete Heritage Museum. We do the ghost walk in October, so we are always interested in learning new things.”

The cemetery was founded as Maccabees Cemetery, the Knights of the Maccabees being a fraternal benefit association whose members, while minimally insured, were promised a decent burial. This was important for settlers who had come west and seen the simple crosses and piles of stones marking graves along the Oregon Trail.

“We’ll be visiting the ‘old section’ of the cemetery,” said tour guide Margie Wilson of the Historical Society. “Once there, I will explain the icons and symbols found on about 25 grave stones.

“Some are very old, dating back to the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Make sure and get up close to the stones. Don’t be shy. Check them out. And while typically you speak in a reverent voice in respect for the dead, tonight, feel free to speak up and ask questions. When you return, be respectful.”

Because most gravestones have small surfaces, abbreviations were frequently used. Many come from Latin sayings, such as AE, shortened from “Aetatis,” Latin for “years of life,” and “DVM,” from “decessit vita matris,” meaning “died in the lifetime of his mother.”

AOKMC stands for Ancient Order of Knights of the Mystic Chain and WOW is Woodmen of the World. More on that last one later.

Wilson said gravestone icons and symbols are a representation of an idea or sentiment and the meanings of those icons have a tendency to change and evolve over time, as influences during particular eras come and go.

During the late 1800s to the early 1900s, she said, the Victorian period had a great amount of influence - not only on the living, but the dead.

“Queen Victoria’s reign influenced a lot,” Wilson said. “It was a very sentimental time . then there was Napoleon Bonaparte. You may ask what significance could Napoleon possibly have on gravestones? Well, he and his army came from Cairo, Egypt, and returned to Europe with all kinds of artifacts. Europeans were in awe of Egypt and all the different symbols. Egyptology was a big influence and led to the Egyptian Revival type of stone work. It provided gravestones a sense of mystery.”

Even the simplest of gravestones can have a wealth of meaning. Take for instance Ross Grant, who died in 1908 at the age of 24. His pulpit gravestone boasts - like most pulpits - an open book atop it. Down the sides, a chiseled shroud.

Wilson said there were various versions of the book: open or closed, if it has few or many pages turned and even what book is represented.

If the book is closed, it could mean the individual’s life (and his or her journey) is over. Only a few pages turned could mean the individual was young. And the book itself could be the Bible, or possibly a schoolbook.

“There is a lot of interpretation when it comes to books,” said Wilson. “And the shroud, it represents sorrow and mourning by the family.”

There is plenty of representation when it comes to gravestones - some expected, such as the pearly gates; and some not so expected, such as anchors.

Both are found on Grant’s gravestone. The anchor is a symbol of hope. There are angels, stars, rods and staffs, cherubs, hearts, swords, suns, torches, chalices, hands, chains, acorns, wedges, arrows, laurels and crowns as well as the Grim Reaper, just to name a few. All have specific meanings.

“It makes you slow down and take notice,” Walton said of her first cemetery tour. “You need to stop and take a look. This day and age, you don’t get many opportunities to do that. Honestly, I had no idea there were so many meanings when it came to ivy and flowers. Now I know. It’s all so interesting.”

No group may be more known for its icons and symbols than Freemasons. A fraternal organization, Freemasonry traces its origins to the middle ages and possibly is connected to the Knights Templar.

A Freemason’s gravestone can have a lot to say, beginning with the omnipresent Masonic Square and Compass with the letter “G” set in between.

“It’s believed the ‘G’ stands for God,” Wilson said. “Or it could stand for geometry.”

James Wandis fought in the Civil War. His white gravestone with a rounded top and a shield on the tympanum (recessed front) designates him as a Union soldier. His Confederate counterparts (none of whom are buried at Green Hills) boast a pointed top with no shield. In its stead is the Southern Cross of Honor.

Another gravestone has a chain of three links. That designates the deceased as being a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The three links are symbolic for friendship, love and truth, all standards the Odd Fellows held in high accord.

Wilson’s favorite gravestone belongs to William E. McCree, who lived from 1855-1911. McCree was a Woodman Of The World and his gravestone is a 6-foot-tall tree stump adorned from top to bottom with icons. The WOW, much like the Maccabees, was a fraternal organization that guaranteed a decent burial for its members.

Walton also found McCree’s gravestone of interest, saying she loved the tree and what it stood for.

“It’s a beautiful, rustic motif,” Wilson said. “The stump is symbolic in the person may have been cut down in the prime of life. Like a tree. There’s also a scroll (The Scroll of Life), dove (represents innocence, purity, gentle, affection) coming down from the top a length of rope and several cutoff limbs. Those have been known to stand for family members left behind.”

Near the bottom is an ax, wedge and mallet atop a log with W. Of The W. inscribed on it.

“There’s also ivy clinging to the stump,” Wilson added. “That is a sign of affection for the people he left behind. It’s quite an impressive gravestone and is nice record of life in death.”


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, https://www.skagitvalleyherald.com

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