cemetery symbolism part 3 symbolism of objects

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Cemetery Symbolism Part 3 Symbolism of objects. A photo-story/fact sheet resource set that introduces students to some of the objects such as torches, wreaths and scrolls we see in heritage cemeteries and the meanings they held for Victorians that are often hidden from us today. - PowerPoint PPT Presentation


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A photo-story/fact sheet resource set that introduces students to some of the objects such as torches, wreaths and scrolls we see in heritage cemeteries and the meanings they held for Victorians that are often hidden from us today.Cemetery Symbolism Part 3 Symbolism of objectsThe many historic cemeteries that dot our towns and countryside leave us a legacy of history, art and culture, which today, we struggle to understand.

These cemeteries are places where our ancestors and loved ones rest and where we today can make contact with the past by observing and coming to understand the beliefs, attitudes, and deeper meanings that are embedded in the material culture and literature of the past. Visual symbolism on graves has been present for as long as such memorials have existed and use of such symbolism continues.


Inverted bouquets are a symbol of death and mean that a life is now extinguished.The flowers within the bouquet shown here represent different attributes many of which can be found elsewhere in this booklet. Roses symbolise the shortness of life Wheat symbolises a long and fruitful life, immortality, resurrection. Daisies are symbolic of the Virgin Mary (simplicity and purity). Primrose symbolises love, memory, youth, hope. Pansies or violas symbolise thoughts.

Inverted Bouquets

FloraNorthern Cemetery, DunedinGreenaway, K. (1885)

Broken flowers usually denote a life cut short and were often used as a symbol for the death of a child.

The broken lily (right) is the symbol used on the Fogo memorial in the Northern Cemetery in Dunedin. The Fogo family had two lives cut short. The Fogos young son died in 1875 aged 11 months. Twenty-five years later Sarah Fogo was convicted of killing her abusive husband and spent 11 years in gaol for the crime. She died at age 70 and was interred in this plot with her husband and baby son. The headstone probably dates from around 1875.

Broken Flowers

FloraAll examples Northern Cemetery, Dunedin. Books represent the Book of Life, which according to the bible is opened on judgement day. The dead are judged by what is recorded in the book. (Keister,D. 2004)

Scrolls are also used for honour and commemoration. Books and scrolls often appear held by a hand or laid over a plinth. Scrolls unroll downwards and are never completely unfurled. They represent a life record traditionally being kept by the angels with the future and past both hidden in the top and bottom. ReligiousScrolls & BooksPalmerston Cemetery, East OtagoOamaru Cemetery, North Otago.Southern Cemetery, Dunedin Anchors are often found on the graves of seafarers or where the deceased may have been lost at sea or in a shipwreck. However the anchor does not always mean the person had any connection in life or death with the sea.

In the lower image the anchors form part of the fence for the plot. Often the anchor will be shown with a cross symbolising both the promise of resurrection and the faith based upon it. (Seaton, L. 2004) An anchor is symbolic of holding a ship steady and in position despite stormy weather conditions so faith in the resurrection of Christ holds a person steady through the storms of life.

ReligiousThe AnchorNorthern Cemetery, DunedinBelow: Northern Cemetery, DunedinLeft Arrowtown Cemetery, Central OtagoArrowtown Cemetery, Central Otago

ReligiousTorches & Lighthouses

Flames, because of their colour and movement, symbolise life. An inverted torch represents the flame of life being extinguished. (Seaton, L. 2004)

Lighthouses symbolise a lighting of the pathway for the deceased towards the day of judgement and resurrection.

In the case of the picture on the left two inverted torches are shown clasped by the dove and the olive branch indicating the deceased are at peace. Inverted torches are often featured on war memorials.Southern Cemetery, DunedinNorthern Cemetery, DunedinNorthern Cemetery, Dunedin

Veils are meant to protect as well as conceal. (Keister, D.2004) The veil which often looks more like a stage curtain symbolises the journey or passage from life to death.

ReligiousCurtains & veilsAll headstones Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.8

For many centuries urns have shown flames emerging from the top, which are symbolic of life, like the torch, and suggest new life associated with the resurrection. Urns were often draped with a veil and garlanded with flowers. Today urns are the containers for ashes after a cremation. However cremation was abhorrent to Victorian Christians who believed burial was a preparation for the afterlife. Instead urns for Victorians were symbolic of fate or the lottery of life. (Seaton, L. 2004)ReligiousDraped UrnsOld Cromwell Cemetery, Central Otago.Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.Northern Cemetery, Dunedin.9 Many headstones are partly covered with a large tasselled cloth. The cloth sometimes covers an urn, the top of a pedestal or an obelisk.

The pallbearer, a word still used today, originally meant the person who held the corners of the pall during the funeral. Each church parish once had a pall, which was hired out for funerals. The pall was usually white representing the purity of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and decorated with symbols such as the Cross, or the Greek letters alpha and omega .

The cloth is called the pall and is symbolic of the large cloth that covers the coffin during the funeral service.ReligiousThe PallSeaton, L. (2004)Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.Timaru Cemetery, South Canterbury.10 Clasped hands symbolise the hands of the deceased and the living clasped in farewell.

Clasped hands were also symbolic of immigrants being parted from their homeland and loved ones as in the old piece of Scottish jewellery shown.

The hands are usually placed horizontally with the index finger of the male pointing down. The hands shown are always the right hand of a female on the left and that of a male on the right. The female hand is shown with a lace cuff and the male hand with a shirt cuff.Non ReligiousClasped HandsSeaton, L. (2004)Arrowtown Cemetery, Central Otago11Ledgers: Hearts & Shields

Ledgers contain the inscription are usually inserted into a larger regular shaped concrete wall. Ledgers in the shape of a heart are quite common in New Zealands cemeteries especially from about 1900. The heart has long been a Christian symbol that represents the centre of emotion. Latterly it has come to represent love. Linwood Cemetery Christchurch.Queenstown Cemetery.Shield: Southern Cemetery, Dunedin. The shield has long been associated with war and may represent victory over death. Shields were popular with families to commemorate fallen soldiers of WW1. ResourcesResources used in the development of these slidesBetteridge, C. (2005). Conservation Plans: Northern and Southern Cemeteries. Unpublished report for Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand.

Greenaway, K. (1884). Language of Flowers. This is a well known dictionary of flower meanings used by Victorians. The 1884 edition (with illustrations) is available as an online illuminated text at http://www.illuminated-books.com/books/flowers.htm

Keister, D. (2004). Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Gibbs Smith Publisher. Salt Lake City.

Seaton, L. (2004) Timaru Cemetery: Messages in Stone. A Guide to the meanings of the symbols on headstones. South Canterbury Museum.

Tyler, L. (No Date). The broken lily and the grim reapers scythe: The iconography of Victorian and Edwardian Gravestones in the Northern Cemetery. Presentation Notes. Director of the Centre for New Zealand Art, Research & Discovery. University of Auckland.AcknowledgementSpecial thanks is extended to Fiona Hyland, Heritage Rose Society of Dunedin, for her help and assistance with identification and meanings behind many cemetery symbols in Dunedins Northern Cemetery.


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