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June 2012-The Meaning of Gravestone Carvings

June 2012-The Meaning of Gravestone Carvings

To walk through a cemetery is to walk through history.

“A gravestone is something tangible to remember that person by. When I drive by a cemetery, the first thing I look at is the older section. I’m curious about the style and design of the gravestones and the names on the gravestones,” said Virginia Hanson, archivist at the State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society, located in the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. She often lectures about genealogy and the meaning of gravestones.

Wood was a common material used to mark graves from the 1840s to about 1910 in South Dakota.

“People often ask me why we have so many unmarked burial sites. A reason is the markers possibly were made of wood. Wood only lasts so long,” Hanson said.

Names cut in wood became less visible as the wood weathered. Some wooden markers were consumed in prairie fires.

Large rocks were also used to mark the location of graves.

Some of the earliest gravestones in South Dakota were made of local stone, with the name of the deceased and year of death carved by hand into the stone. Symbols were added if the family could afford it.

“Carvers charged by the letter, so if there was a lot of carving in the gravestone, that was quite an investment,” Hanson said.

Many of the symbols carved on a gravestone reflected the nationality of the deceased.

A Celtic cross might symbolize someone who came from Ireland or Scotland, and an iron cross might denote the German-Russian peoples.

Some of the common carvings on tombstones in South Dakota were flowers, gates, butterflies and broken rings. Flowers symbolized condolences, grief or sorrow, while closed roses meant brevity of earthly existence. A gate symbolized the open gateway from earth to heaven. A broken ring meant the family circle was severed. A lamb was often seen on the gravestones of those under 16 and meant innocence or youth. An inverted torch meant sudden death or the sudden loss of an adult life.

Symbols often reflected membership in an organization or military service.

A Sears and Roebuck Catalog from about 1912 offered different tombstones and styles that people could order.

“So if you see several stones with the same pattern, there is a good chance they were ordered through the local market,” Hanson said.

The meaning of gravestone carvings has changed over the years. Wheat or corn stalks once symbolized ripe old age, but now it can mean the deceased was a farmer, Hanson said.

“Since 1950, with modern etching, you see about anything as far as tombstone markings -- rodeo scenes, airplanes, farm machinery, or a portrait of a person,” Hanson said.

Motion sensors make it possible for a recording to turn on when people walk by the gravestone and light sensitive lamps turn on when the sun sets.

“Back 100 years ago you wouldn’t think of putting a lamp at a grave, but now, a light at the gravesite is a modern symbol of remembering the spirit of that person,” Hanson said.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at