Source: Sherman Publications

Tombstone iconography
Historical society to host lecture at Old Mill

by David Fleet

May 01, 2013

From 7 to 8 p.m., May 8, the Ortonville Community Historical Society will host Ray Henry who will speak on tombstone iconography at the Old Mill in downtown Ortonville.

“Tombstones tell a story,” he said.

A local historian and genealogist for the past 40 years, Henry received degrees from the University of Michigan and Simmons College (Boston). He serves on the board of directors for the Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society in addition to the Rochester-Avon Historical Society.

“Tombstones in our cemeteries and burial grounds here in Michigan are characterized by the ‘willow and urn,’” he said. “Those icons are a transition from the ‘skull and bones,’ found prior to about the 1830s. The icon change is the Greek revival influence which is also reflected in a shift in attitudes toward death. Prior to the early 1800s people viewed death as, ‘It’s here, get used to it’ to ‘longing for the person that died.’ Because most settlers to the south came from New England, traditions came along with them. That style is reflected in the tombstones.”

“In the old New England cemeteries there are winged cherubim, symbolizing the flight of the soul from mortal man and the grim reaper,” he said. “Here in Michigan you’ll find wheat sheaf on gravestones often of older people, denoting a full life of prosperity and accomplishment. Conversely, a rose bud broken is a symbol for a younger person that had died. The clasped hands also are also common on tombstones ”

Henry added that another transition occurred following the Civil War.

“Everything changed again after about 1865—embalming, jewelry and even tombstones were impacted,” he said. “The language of stones reflect our history and a glimpse into the past. They have a story to tell if you know the iconography or meaning behind the icons or pictures.”

Admission is free to the PowerPoint presentation.