Living History In The Cemetery

20 February 2014
 Categories: Business, Articles


An unlikely but absorbing hobby for the whole family is looking at memorial monuments in Chicago IL and other parts of the state, country, even around the world. The epitaphs written on headstones provide a look into the life and times of long ago. The shape of the graves and the sculptures on top of them are a window on the culture and society from decades and centuries back. Headstones also give visitors a glimpse of the individuals beneath. The inscriptions show that some were well loved and others just tolerated. Cemeteries are urban oases, with acres of open ground, usually landscaped and well tended. A day of checking out headstones can provide relief from a hot summer day. This hobby can also help your children learn history up close. There are a number of famous people buried close to Chicago, everyone from politicians, scientists, entertainers, athletes and gangsters. Al Capone and other racketeers are buried at Mount Carmel Cemetery. The Civil War is commemorated at Oakwood Cemetery, with thousands of graves of Confederate soldiers who were prisoners of war housed at Camp Douglas. Jesse Owens, the famous track and field star and Olympic medal winner, is also buried there. When you go on vacation, you can check out the graves of famous people in the area you are visiting. Find out what you children are studying in school and find the location of the graves of pertinent people. For example, if your son is studying Colonial history, a trip to any number of New England cemeteries is a perfect way to bring that period into focus, with many graves dating from the 1600s. Online grave registries that focus on famous people can pinpoint cemeteries to visit. It even has a name! The hobby of checking out old grave markers is called graving. Serious practitioners are familiar with the history of the cemetery, the reason it is located where it is and the people that created it. They understand the language of gravestone symbols and the type of wording used in different locales and decades. Many people are first drawn to cemeteries during a genealogical search. The markers usually show the dates of birth and death. Surrounding graves can help family historians figure out if there are other close family members and how they fit into the family tree. The website is a good place to locate interesting cemeteries. Small town cemeteries and those along old roadways are a slice of real Americana. Many old churches have small graveyards close by. Click here for info about historical graves. The language of gravestones Gravestone markers from earlier years were heavy on symbolism. A pillar cracked in two indicated a life ended before its time. The palm leaf was the universal symbol for a martyr, meaning the deceased had a hard life. A hand reaching to the sky meant life after death. Two hands grasped usually meant good-bye to this life and a welcome to an eternal one. More literal graphics include an anchor to indicate a career in the Navy and a rifle for someone who served in the Army. The death of a child was more common a century ago, but a trauma for the family nonetheless. Parents often felt the need to commemorate the life of an offspring cut short. If a child dies, the standard choice of artwork is a lamb laying down with a headstone shown in the background. Other choices include a dove, a lily with a broken stem, or a pair of children's shoes, one of which is on its side. An empty chair was also a popular symbol. In Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery, the grave of sixteen year old Lulu Fellows is one of the most popular stops on a cemetery tour. Her parents commissioned a full size sculpture, showing her sitting in a chair and reading a book. The inscription reads, "Many hopes lie buried here."