Symbols of The Cemetery

Dana Bocke is a “cemetery geek.” She spends her free time roaming through cemeteries.

“I go to cemeteries like other people go on vacation,” she says.

No, she isn’t chasing ghosts. Bocke is studying funerary art — the history and meanings of the artwork and design of tombstones.

One of her favorite treks is through Columbia Cemetery’s nearly 34 acres of limestone, marble and granite tributes. The tombstones resonate with history, revealing names that read like a street map of Columbia: Clinkscales, Garth, Nifong, Banks. Over to the left is James Stephens, namesake of Stephens College, whose single $20,000 endowment led Stephens College to become what it is today. Go a bit further and you’ll find the “Father of Mizzou,” James S. Rollins, whose large family plot is surrounded by a nearly foot-high concrete barrier. Ahead is the grave of J.W. “Blind” Boone, whose music still rings through Columbia. Even the coiner of the “Show-Me” state motto, Willard Vandiver, is here.

Bocke gives group tours through the cemetery, sponsored by the Daniel Boone Public Library, where she is employed in Children’s Services. “I come out here and wander around and see something cool and take a picture and then I Google it,” she says. The vast majority of information is on the Internet, but for her, the definitive book is Stories in Stone: a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister. Most funerary art in Columbia’s cemeteries can be found in this book.

Her tours take participants to various parts of the cemetery, including the area where 31 black soldiers are buried. Members of the United States Colored Infantry, some fought in the final battle of the Civil War, a month after Appomattox. After the war, these same soldiers pooled their money with the rest of their regiments and founded what is now Lincoln University in Jefferson City. In the Jewish section, Bocke points out there are no flowers — flowers are for joyous occasions. Instead, small stones set on top of the tombstones show someone has visited.

For Bocke, the most interesting details of cemeteries are the symbols and art on the tombstones. For example, wreaths symbolize “victory over death,” she says. Other popular graphics include a hand with the finger pointing up — the hand of God taking them to heaven, or a finger pointing down. No, she says assuredly, that doesn’t mean they went to the otherplace. She says the artwork is thought to show the hand of God reaching down and taking the soul to heaven.

Another common tombstone decoration is the handshake. This is used to symbolize marriage, but can also mean a welcome to heaven. Carved drawings of plants and flowers are prominent on markers: lilies stand for shedding of the earthly life for the spiritual one; roses are for purity; oak leaves mean strength and endurance. “Log” tombstones, which look like cut logs made of cement, are scattered throughout the cemetery and demonstrate a “life cut short,” Bocke says. Most Greek columns on the stones prominently feature the leaves of the acanthus, which signify a heavenly garden.

Tree stump monuments are taller and upright and carry a “wealth of symbols,” Bocke explained. These stones are often rich with meaning, having both spiritual and personal significance to the deceased. A fine example is the Rollins family plot, which features fern, calla lily and ivy. Tree stones became popular more than a century ago because they could be ordered from the Sears catalog with any symbol desired.

Engravings of lamps embellish monuments of academics and denote wisdom. However, a lamp with smoke is meant to show a casting off of physical life and acquiring a spiritual one.

But are the carvings on the stones something that just looked pretty to the family, or did they understand the meanings behind the symbols? Columbia Cemetery superintendent Tanja Patton believes the graphics actually meant something to the family, providing comfort to them as they memorialized their loved one. She says she is absolutely certain that people knew what the symbols meant.

“They had it all planned out,” she says.

Funerary art began in the 1700s on the East Coast and then moved westward. Columbia Cemetery is considered a Victorian cemetery because so much of the funerary designs are from the 1800s, but there are notable exceptions. The late Ed Robb, a former University of Missouri faculty member, has a tiger “cat paw” on the back of his stone and the stone of a young Hickman student displays a kewpie.

Marking History
This is Columbia’s oldest cemetery, established in 1820, and is now designated on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the graves here are so old the tombstones are long gone, with no indication of what lies below. Mary Todd, a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, , has the oldest legible tombstone from 1827. Hers is a flat “lawn-style” monument, nearly erased by time. The oldest grave may be that of James Barr, his 1821grave unmarked.

“We know where they are,” Patton says of the older graves. “They just aren’t marked.”

Veterans of every war rest here, including two from the Revolutionary War.

Civil War veterans Odon and David Guitar were brothers who fought on opposite sides. After the war, the brothers never spoke to each other again, but both lie peacefully in the family plot. Civil strife also can be revealed on the tombstones. Confederate and Union tombstones are scattered throughout the cemetery. The Union markers are straight across the top, and the Confederates are pointed so the “Yankees can’t sit on them,” Bocke explains.

Family plots allow families to stay together, she says. Families were once required to care for their own loved one’s graves and so the stone borders and iron fences surrounding them showed what was theirs to maintain, kind of like the “walls of home,” Bocke says. There are only a few stone walls left, Patton says, to “showcase old customs.”

Part of the cemetery’s perpetual care is the “leveling” of the tombstones, necessary because of age and Missouri’s expansive soil. Patton says last year her grounds crew leveled about 100 of the smaller monuments, accomplished by pouring cement around the base of the stone and then placing a level on top to ensure that it is straight. Larger monuments are handled by an outside company; about 20 are leveled each year.

“This is the historic cemetery and slowly but surely we’re going to get everything done. It’s just a matter of time and money,” Patton says.

Mausoleums & Monuments
Funerary art is not limited to the artwork on the monument itself. Mausoleums serve as giant tombstones, encasing the bodies of entire families. One of Columbia Cemetery’s most splendid mausoleums is that of Edward Farley, an Irish stone mason who built the mausoleum himself. Still standing 100 years later, it is a testament to his superb craftsmanship.

Mausoleums can be used for those who don’t want to be buried, are afraid of being buried alive, or for those who feared grave robbers. Since the mid-1800s, however, mausoleums also have shown “high social and economic status,” according to University of Missouri art and archaeology professor Keith Eggener in his book Cemeteries.

Another monument denoting status is the “chest tomb.” These are life-sized sarcophagi that look like a large box. Each box normally was cut to the dimensions of the person buried there, and surprisingly, the body is in the ground, not in the box.

“The bodies were considered more secure underground, but people liked the look of the sarcophagus of Egypt,” Bocke says.

Today urns hold cremated remains, but during the 1800s, cremations were almost nonexistent, and so urns were decorative, symbolizing greatness. The Clinkscales tombstone is particularly outstanding because its draped urn looks like a ghost from the back. The monument’s jagged stone makes it look all the more scary; the rough-cut stone was meant to symbolize eternity — but the scare factor was unintended. “We don’t have ghosts,” Patton says smiling. “My people are happy here.”

Room For All
The Columbia Cemetery has less than 100 burials and cremations a year.

“I am amazed at the number of people who think the cemetery is full,” says David Sapp, president of the Columbia Cemetery Association. Although 12,000 people have been buried there, “we have 10,000 spaces left.”

Superintendent Patton says last year only a third of the bodies were cremated; this year, the rate is up to about 50 percent. Customs have moved to a “more natural” burial, she says. People seldom have coffins put in steel vaults now; Jewish plots contain only pine boxes, and Muslims are just wrapped in a sheet. Although burials for Muslims are simple, Patton notes, their interment is not. Muslims need two plots, to accommodate angling the body toward Mecca.

Stories All Around
Cemeteries are fertile ground for legends, and stories survive longer than the truth. The “scattering garden” is the area of the cemetery, ringed by cedar trees, where cremated remains may be spread. The trees have invited tales of a witch being buried there; enticing awestruck teens to gather there on Halloween night. The reason for the tree pattern offers much less sinister truth — cemeteries were once community gathering places and a bandstand stood here. The bandstand is long gone and in its place stands the circle of trees.

One story that needs no embellishment is that of a founding member of Phi Kappa Psi, the oldest fraternity at Mizzou. Bentley Runyan, one of the five original members of the fraternity, is buried in Columbia Cemetery. Runyan is held in such high esteem that every semester since his death, pledges have come to lay roses on his grave.

The cemetery’s columbarium provides niches for urn storage of cremated remains, like a “safe deposit box” for ashes, Bocke explains. A plaza by the columbarium features a magnificent bronze sculpture of “Babe” Price, commissioned by her son, Al. The bronze sculpture, created by renowned local artist Sabra Tull Meyer, shows a younger Babe enjoying flowers from her garden.

Meyer is also a local history buff and is on the board of trustees for Columbia Cemetery. She and Cindy Mustard give talks for community groups about the history of the cemetery.

“She knows the art, I know the history,” Mustard says. Both Meyer and Mustard are native Columbians and Mustard admits she used to steal flowers from the graves when she was a child.

“This is my atonement,” she says with a laugh.

Meyer notes how very much the Victorians were fascinated by Egyptian culture. Obelisks (think Washington Monument) are prevalent throughout the cemetery. Obelisks represent power and prestige, according to Eggener’s book. Although popular in the 1800s, they are still being placed even today.

One of Meyer’s favorite tombstones is for America Johnson, which has a finger pointing down, holding a chain. She says this signifies the loss of a loved one. Superintendent Patton’s favorite shows an angel astride a coffin, holding a paddle. But, Mustard hastens to point out, “It is not the River Styx, but the river to heaven.”

Cold Storage
The cemetery’s roadways are named for Columbia pioneers. On Prewitt Road is the imposing limestone “receiving vault,” also known as the “cold storage vault house,” Patton says.

Before the invention of the backhoe, bodies were stored there until the ground was warm enough to dig. The vault could hold as many as a dozen coffins, and families were charged $1 a week for storage, $2 a week if a cemetery plot wasn’t owned — a hefty incentive to buy one. Originally, the ceiling was painted blue, with clouds and stars.

Only one other receiving vault may remain in the state, in St. Louis. Vaults were also used when there were too many bodies to bury at once, such as the flu epidemic of 1918, and during World War II. This one, fortunately, now only hold tools.

Beth Shalom
Just across the road from the Jewish area of the cemetery, named Beth Shalom, is the monument for Gail and “Petey” Bank. He was Jewish and she was Christian. Jewish grounds are sanctified and only Jews are permitted burial. The Bank grave site (although he is still living) is truly an undying compromise, lying as close to the Jewish section as physically possible, but not quite in it.

Bocke explains how the Bank monument is an example of the detail expressed in modern tombstones. With the help of computer laser printing, this tablet-style marker “gives their whole life story,” she says. “You don’t have to wonder about them; their life is right there for you to see.”

But sometimes simple says it best, as in Hirst Mendenhall’s tombstone: “Flew 65 missions — two on D-Day.”

“I like to be able to read the stories told about people. They should be remembered; that’s what they wanted,” Bocke says.

In the cemetery, they are remembered. The rain falls, the stars shine, but the eternal tributes remain, carved in stone.

A Guide To Cemetery Symbols
According to Dana Bocke and the book, Stories in Stone: a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister, these popular symbols carry significance when decorating into a tombstone.

Square & compass symbol for Freemasons, also the All Seeing Eye, symbolizes God

Torch & wreath combined: immortality and intellectual greatness

Broken column: life cut short

Star of David: most well-known Jewish symbol, meaning divine protection

Maltese cross (flared ends) seen on Fraternal Orders monuments, represents the Beatitudes in the Bible

Partly finished tombstone: an unfinished life

Arch: bridge between heaven and earth

Calla Lily: majestic beauty, marriage

Palm frond: triumph over death

Weeping Willow: grief and immortality

Daffodil: rebirth

Daisy: used for children, innocence

Evening Primrose: eternal love & happiness

Fern: humility, renewal & resurrection

Lily of Valley: innocence & purity

Morning Glories: resurrection

Pansy: remembrance

Wheat: long and fruitful life, immortality


Columbia Cemetery Tour
By Dana Bocke, sponsored by Daniel Boone Regional Library
5:30 p.m. Oct. 20
Meet at the library, 100 W. Broadway