Category Archives: Headstones

What’s Between the Dashes?

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Guest post by Kookie Hemperley

Sometimes, when walking through a graveyard searching for an ancestor’s final resting place, I am reminded of words spoken by a preacher at a funeral I attended many years ago. He said that one’s life is not reflected in the stone that marks the grave but rather the way that person lived his/her life between the dashes. So, it matters not the size or shape of the stone, just the dashes.

Many of our ancestors passed long before we know if they were kind, loving, funny, rich, poor, Christian or savages, but oh I long to know more! While I may never know what color eyes they had, if they were short or tall, maybe I can learn more about them by studying their stones. And in so doing, gain a little insight to that person’s life between the dashes.

What I have learned about stones is:

A grave with shells represents the final journey to the other side.
This one with a Bible on top and the gates of Heaven opening tells me my great- great grandmother was greeted by the angel depicted on the stone and she was a Christian lady. The opening gates represent passing from this life into her Heavenly home. An open Bible most likely is on the headstone of a minister.


These two indicate membership in fraternal orders:


Hearts and rings are symbols of marriage and souls in bliss:


Children’s headstones often have cherubs, angels or lambs which signify innocence:

Clearly there are many more symbols etched in stone:

Flying birds represent the Flight of the Soul.

Ivy represents friendship and immortality and the Dove stands for innocence, gentleness, affection, purity or peace.

A cross is an emblem of faith and resurrection.

A linked chain designates existence while a broken chain is the end of earthly existence and a three link chain is an emblem of the Order of the Odd Fellows.

A crown exemplifies the soul’s achievement and the glory of life after death.

Hands pointing up are the pathway to Heaven.

Praying hands are asking God for eternal life and clasped hands are farewells.

Occasionally you might come across pennies left on a tombstone or stones on the grave. Pennies are much akin to coins in a fountain, or offered to the deceased for advice. It is said that in the Jewish religion they do not place flowers at the grave but leave a stone noting they were there.

While searching for an ancestor that died in the Civil war at Vicksburg, I was surprised to learn that the National Parks Cemetery does not have any Confederate soldiers buried within the boundaries of the Park. The Federal Government did not recognize the Confederate deaths until after 1898. Prior to that date it had been left up to the Southern states to bury and maintain cemeteries of the fallen soldiers. Those who died at Vicksburg are buried in a city owned cemetery, Cedar Hill, and it is currently maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. All southern soldiers who were killed or died of disease during the siege on Vicksburg are buried behind Southern lines.

In some cemeteries which have soldiers from the Confederate and the Yankee regiments, the Confederate tombstones face west as a way to separate them from Northern soldiers. On another note, Southerners favored tombstones that were pointed at the top rather than round. That insured that no Yankee would be able to sit on their grave! They are rare, but do exist.

In honor of our families who lost loved ones, or had loved ones in any war, I submit the following as a memorial to them:

Recently I received an email regarding the veterans’ tombstones that are placed in all National Cemeteries. The video was shown on CBS Sunday Morning News and tells of the white Vermont marble used for each deceased veteran buried in a Nation Cemetery. The care and respect that goes into making each tombstone is explained at the website listed below:

CBS News Sunday Morning News (The marble of our heroes’ headstones) – IMDb

While I haven’t filled in many of the dashes I’ve located, I do feel a sense of getting to know some of my relatives better. Some were benevolent, some Christian, some champions of our daily freedom. Sadly to say, no how hard I try, some tombstones I’ve been searching for just aren’t there anymore and so there are no dashes…… no clues to help me understand my past heritage. But it does set one’s mind into fast forward when I wonder just what my dashes will say!

Kookie Hemperley

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