This month’s symbol features a single word, MIZPAH, but it is a term and an emblem of an emotional bond that goes beyond the grave. However, it doesn’t appear to be a common symbol and so far I have only discovered three instances of in in nearby cemeteries.
I often used to see Mizpah inscribed on old fashioned jewellery such as brooches during the 1970’s and ‘80’s when browsing in charity shops and jumble sales. At that time I thought that it might have been Hebrew, or a similar language, and might have stood for Mother.
However, during this year’s Open House I visited St Nicholas church in Chislehurst as I’d read somewhere that Napoleon III was buried there. Alas, it was the wrong church and he has long since been re-interred elsewhere. However, on a churchyard tour that afternoon, led by Peter Appleby, I finally learned what it actually signified as he indicated Mizpah on the Campbell monument. He said that it came from an Old Testament phrase ‘I will set around you a mountain which will keep you and protect you.’ I haven’t been able to find this particular Biblical quotation although Psalm 27.5 seems to be the likeliest source.
The word appears in the Old Testament in Genesis 31:49 :
‘And Mizpah, for he said, the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of another’s sight.’ King James Bible
In other words the one left behind is still protected and watched over even though their loved one has gone. The touching link between two people or an entire family who have been separated by death or another force.
But there is another version, according to Wikipedia, in which it’s claimed that Mizpah stands for ’Lord watch over me’ and relates to the story of Jacob and Laban. Jacob fled with from Laban’s house in the middle of the night with all of his earthly possessions including animals, wives and children and Laban was soon in pursuit. But the two men came to an agreement and built a watchtower or Mizpah. This would be a border between their respective territories and neither would pass the watchtower, which was reputed to be merely a pile of stones, to visit the other to do evil. God would be the only witness to their pact and would protect one from the other. Today a modern village stands on the supposed site called Metullah which means lookout.
However I prefer the more poignant reference to the affectionate ties between the departed and the bereaved and the wish to leave them with the feeling that they were still being supported and protected as exemplified by the one simple word.
MIZPAH jewellery is still available and is often in the form of a coin shaped pendant, cut in two, with a zig-zag line bearing the words that I quoted in the first paragraph.
Here are two examples that I found online; one is vintage and the other is contemporary.
This first example is from Beckenham Cemetery and the Victorian epitaph is an affectionate tribute to a much loved and missed wife, Emma.
The second is from the Campbell monument in St Nicholas churchyard. The Celtic cross above the grave has strapwork made from entwined snakes, themselves symbols of eternity and mortality. The Campbells had two famous sons; Sir Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald. Note the small motif of a bluebird in one corner above the epitaph. This was the name of the vehicles on which both Sir Malcolm and Donald achieved several world speed records during their lifetimes. Donald was tragically killed in 1967 when another world speed record breaking attempt on Coniston Water went tragically wrong and both he and Bluebird sank the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t until 2001 that his remains were discovered and buried in Coniston cemetery. Nick Wales, his son, maintains the grave and also holds the world record for the fastest lawnmower. He has also tested a new Bluebird over Bewl Water.
The final one is a modern version, again from Beckenham Cemetery, and is edicated to a Kathleen Sabine and dates from 2000.
The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings. The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God. However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation. But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade
The Freemason association is the most obvious and common. They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people. But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’
‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’
They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’
They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons. Wikipedia says ‘
‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866
in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’
There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.
But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:
‘something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’
They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form. So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.
But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not. There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.
You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:
I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.
I was on a summer stroll in early July of this year in Kensal Green Cemetery when I noticed this symbol. From where I was standing it resembled a mop head which had dried out and been left on top of a grave. I was planning to carry on stalking obliging butterflies but curiosity got the better of me and I made my way over to the monument. It was then that I realised that the supposed mop head was in fact a beautifully sculpted wheatsheaf.
‘Had the deceased been a master baker?’ was my first thought as it’s a traditional symbol associated with them or perhaps a pub owner as you do see a lot of pubs called The Wheatsheaf. The epitaphs on both side of the tomb were virtually unreadable. However, on one side I could make out ‘Sarah’ and on the other ‘Milnes’. But more of the Milnes later as this family has a strong connection to Kensal Green Cemetery
A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested by hand with scythes. However with the advent of agricultural mechanisation it is now a bygone image. No-one has ever known the origins of this staple crop and so it has been regarded by many cultures as a gift from God.
The wheatsheaf and resurrection
However, the wheatsheaf symbol has always had strong associations with the theme of resurrection.
This seemingly humble grain has played its part in many funeral cults and mourning rites throughout ancient cultures. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as life springing from death or immortality. Priests are reputed to have sprinkled wheat flour on their victim’s head prior to sacrificing them. Ceres and Demeter, the Greek and Roman goddesses of harvest and agriculture, often carried either a wheatsheaf or a harvester’s sickle. Ancient Egypt was seen as the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean due to the volume of crops that it produced and Osiris, god of the underworld, was strongly associated with wheat within the context of a representation of rebirth.
Wheat is also important to the Christian religion with the Eucharist bread which represents the body of Christ and his sacrifice and also in remembrance of the Last Supper. There is the famous biblical quotation from Luke 22:19:
‘and he took bread and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me’ King James Bible.
When wheat is harvested the ground is left to lie still during the winter and then re-sown in the spring to begin the cycle of life again. Here it represents renewal and renewal as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread. There is also the association with the harvesting of years in that Death and his scythe prepare to reap at the end of life.
So there has always been an association with the wheatsheaf of resurrection and remembrance. This is where it is at its most powerful as a funerary symbol. However, Douglas Keister has also suggested that a wheatsheaf on a tombstone can indicate someone who
‘lived a long and fruitful life of more than seventy years and one that was harvested by the Reaper when it was time’
The wheatsheaf and the Victorian cult of mourning
According to the art of mourning website, the wheatsheaf was also a very popular motif in Victorian mourning jewellery. In fact they have suggested that it could be seen as a memento mori in that it denotes life cut and renewal or resurrection of the soul. Its heyday was during 1820-1860 and it also survived into early 20th century mourning jewellery just as it was going out of fashion. The wheatsheaf was often found in mourning wreaths, brooches, lockets and rings and was an effective emblem when working with hair to create these pieces.
There is also a stained glass window featuring a wheatsheaf at St Michael & All Angels in Eaton Bishop, Herefordshire but this may be a Victorian addition by Kempe after restoration.
But who lies under the Kensal Green wheatsheaf?
This grave contains 2 women who were, respectively, the first and second wives of the Victorian sculptor Thomas Milnes. He is buried with his third and final wife elsewhere within Kensal Green cemetery under a far plainer stone. He certainly lived a long life – his dates are 21 December 1810 – 6 May 1888 but there’s no wheatsheaf on top of him. Milnes completed a number of funerary monuments which can be seen in churches in Gloucestershire, Cumbria and Suffolk and also statues which still stand in Norwich and Woolwich. Milnes exhibited statues and busts at the Royal Academy after entering its schools on 21 April 1841. He also designed another monument in Kensal Green, the horse and child on top of Alfred Cooke, which, although damaged, is still in place.
However he wasn’t destined to became a major British sculptor despite, in 1858, being invited to design and model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s column. It would have been the commission of a lifetime but his designs were deemed ‘unsuitable’ and the commission went to Sir Edwin Landseer’s monumental symbols of Empire instead. However, Milnes lions which are, in my opinion, more lively and playful than Landseer’s can be seen in Saltaire, near Bradford. After that he seems to have sunk in obscurity.
The ‘Sarah’ that is still legible on one side was Milnes’ first wife: Sarah Betsey Harrad. They married in London on 19 May 1866 but it was short lived. Sarah died a year later on 1 April 1867 of ‘apoplexy’ which is now known as a stroke or cerebral haemorrhage. Frances Eidsforth became his second wife on 16 July 1867 at St Georges, Bloomsbury and she died on 16 July 1875. She is buried with Sarah.
Milnes married his third and final wife, Jessie Anne Fletcher, on 1 June 1876 but there were no children from any of his marriages
Little seems to be known about either Sarah or Frances and it’s a real shame that their epitaphs, presumably on either side of the monument are now illegible. However I would assume that the wheatsheaf placed on top of them is a symbol or resurrection and a hope that they would all meet again in eternity.
The wheatsheaf is remarkably well carved and has outlasted the epitaphs. It has been presumed that it is by Milnes himself but no definite proof has been found to be able to attribute it to him with certainty.
There is another smaller wheatsheaf in Kensal Green which is on the Samuel Horsley memorial.
These two examples are from Oak Grove Cemetery, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA – I don’t have any further details on them unfortunately.
This is another less well known symbol but, in my opinion, a very attractive one. I found two examples of a grapevine climbing up a cross during a recent visit to Kensal Green cemetery together with another that only featured grapes as decoration and a fourth which had trailing vine leaves on a Celtic cross. The first two in Kensal Green really make good use of the cross on which they are carved to its fullest advantage with the vines sinuously climbing up the stem and then the leaves almost hanging from the crosspiece. In fact the form of a grapevine almost resembles a cross with the long stems stretching up and then branching out horizontally with the grapes hanging from them. I also found a cross in Brompton Cemetery which had a design of grapes and vine leaves as a border around its edges.
For the source of this symbol we have to go back to the ancient Greeks and the god Dionysus. He was also known to the ancient Romans as Bacchus and both of them are always represented in paintings and sculptures as holding grapes. The latter were often depicted on Greek wine cups in tribute to Dionysus. Both of them were seen as the god of the vine and were associated with wine-making, celebration and ecstasy. Dionysus was also associated with rebirth in that, after his dismemberment by the Titans, he came back to life in an echo of the winter pruning of grapevines so they may bear fruit again during the next year. He was unique in that he could bring a dead person back from the underworld.
As you may imagine, the early Christians adopted the less bacchanalian side of Dionysus and Bacchus. There are many similarities between Dionysus and Jesus in that both were supposed to have been born from a mortal woman but fathered by a god, to have returned from the dead and to have transformed water into wine. The early Christians took the latter and transformed it into a miracle. They also used the powerful symbol of the grapevine with Christ calling himself ‘the vine.’ In John 15:5 there is the famous quotation:
‘I am the vine and you are the branches. If a man is in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.’
In fact a vine and its branches are traditionally seen as depicting Christ and his followers, the Church and its faithful. He also uses the analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven as being similar to that of a manager hiring workers for his vineyard. The grapevine was also adopted by the ancient Roman Christian converts and appears on their graves and in their mosaics.
Grapes are an abundant crop and are one of the earliest cultivated crops known to us. It bears fruit for the harvest and so is associated with celebration and good times. The artofmourning website has suggested that there is also an element of birth/rebirth with the representation of the grapes and also a connection with victory.
‘The ripe harvest shows the promise of the fruits rewards being reaped and turned into the production of sustenance for the future.’
An interesting theory within the context of a funerary symbol as it hints at resurrection. There is also the theme of sacrifice. Wine, which comes from the grape, has always traditionally been seen as representing the blood of Christ and this is particularly symbolic during the service of Holy Communion within the Catholic church. Also, during the Last Supper, Christ gave wine to his disciples and told them to drink it in remembrance of him.
But what does this age-old symbol mean within a Victorian London cemetery? As I see it, it can be a representation of the deceased becoming part of an eternal vineyard i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven or that their earthly lives were full of abundance and achievement. But it can also be a motif of resurrection in that the grapes are crushed underfoot to be reborn as wine and this would be highly appropriate for use within a cemetery. In fact I’m surprised that it doesn’t appear more often as it is very eye-catching amongst more restrained classical symbols especially when combined with a cross.
These two fine examples come from Kensal Green cemetery and demonstrate how well a grapevine translates onto a cross. Note the three letters in the centre of the Cross which are IHS combined together. This is a Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ, Man and Saviour which is ‘Iesus Honinum Salvator’ which translates as ‘Jesus the Saviour of Man’.
The first is to Frederick Salmon and the other to George Gordon Moir. I haven’t been able to find out anything on Moir but research is ongoing. However, he obviously liked Salmon’s cross and embellishment as his is identical.
But Frederick Salmon (1796 – 1859) was a renowned and pioneering surgeon and he has a fascinating story to tell.
Salmon was a restless Victorian medical man out to make his mark and improve the lives of his fellow citizens. In many ways he was a maverick destined to rebel against and work outside the medical establishment of the time. As you can see from his epitaph he founded St Mark’s Hospital which is still in existence, based in Harrow and is part of the St Bart’s and the London NHS Trust.
He was born in Bath in 1796 and, at 15, was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. Somewhere along the line he met William White, one of the earliest surgeons to write on rectal disease. Salmon always credited White with the direction in which his own career went which was in the field of proctology.
However, the medical establishment frustrated Salmon. Training depended on money and influence as posts had to be bought and so were often earmarked for friends and relations of surgeons and physicians. In 1817 he paid £8.15s.0d to become a house surgeon at St Barts and then rose to a surgeon’s post. He also wrote a book on intestinal disease in 1828 which ran to four editions. But Salmon became part of a medical scandal when, in 1833 aged 37, he resigned with other staff members from the General Dispensary in protest. They were angry at the plans of the hospital governors to revert to a system in which posts were up for sale to those who could afford to pay. The Lancet declared in the same year that the practice was ‘one of money, of favour and of family interest.’ Salmon was now a free man and obviously one of considerable charisma and talent. He founded St Mark’s in 1835 with the City of London providing much of the finance. It was in one room with seven beds and 2 other staff members at 11 Aldersgate Street in the City. A plaque still marks its location. It had the less than catchy name of St Mark’s Infirmary for the Relief of the Poor afflicted with Fistula and other diseases of the Rectum. But it soon acquired a nickname: The Fistula Infirmary. Despite several moves and expansions of premises St Mark’s remained in the City until 1995 when it moved to its present location.
From the beginning St Mark’s filled a desperate need for London’s poor to be able to access treatment. Salmon was not only able to attract significant funding but also wealthy patrons and supporters. Sir William Copeland, Lord Mayor of London, was a grateful patient who became St Mark’s first President and Charles Dickens presented several autographed copies of his latest book, The Pickwick Papers, and 10 guineas in gratitude. This was after having undergone a rectal operation without anaesthetics. Salmon was reputed to have performed 3500 operations without a single fatality which was an incredible achievement at a time when antiseptics were unknown and anaesthetics were only just coming into use.
Salmon retired, due to ill health, in 1859 and died at Ombersley near Droitwich on 3 January 1868 aged 72. St Mark’s was his lasting legacy and there is a ward named after him. Today the hospital is one of only 14 worldwide hospitals to be recognised as a centre of excellence by the Worldwide Organisation of Digestive Endoscopy.
Salmon was a vine that bore fruit as did John Edward Taylor (1830-1905)
Mr Taylor’s magnificent Art Nouveau style monument is tucked away on a lower path in Kensal Green Cemetery. It dwarves the far more recent surrounding graves and headstones. Such unashamedly Art Nouveau memorials are rare within cemeteries. There’s one in Streatham cemetery, a lovely gem in West Norwood, another in Hendon and there are undoubtedly others scattered across London.
Here the grapes are carved on the left hand side sidepiece flanking the main memorial. These reflect the Art Nouveau love of natural forms and structures. The movement used the curving, organic lines taken from plants and flowers. But, by the time Mr Taylor’s widow Martha died in 1912, Art Nouveau was about to be replaced by the angular lines of Art Deco.
Taylor was another restless Victorian man who was involved in many areas. He was the second son of John Edward Taylor senior who founded the Manchester Guardian in 1821 backed by a group of local liberals known as The Little Circle. They had successfully lobbied for parliamentary reform in the era of rotten boroughs and as a result of their efforts Parliament passed the Reform Act of 1832. Taylor senior witnessed the Peterloo massacre in 1819 but been unimpressed by its leaders. The Manchester Guardian is still in business but now renamed the Guardian and Taylor edited it until his death at the early age of 52.
After the death of his older brother, Russell, in 1848 Edward became co-owner and then sole owner of his father’s paper in 1856. He also edited it from 1861-1872. Newspaper ink was in his blood and he also became owner and then co-owner of the Manchester Evening News until his death. He was also a philanthropist and believed in education which led him to become a trustee of Manchester College from 1854 until his death. He founded the Manchester Aid Society in 1863, advocated temperance and free trade and was also involved in the British and Foreign Bible Society. On top of this he was also a director of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Company.
Taylor remained a lifelong liberal and in 1895 he refused a baronetcy offered to him by Lord Rosebery. But he was also known as a great art collector and a generous one. He often lent out some of his collection to local exhibitions in Manchester or at Burlington House. After his death, Christie’s held a sale of his collection over 12 days and achieved record prices for the time. Taylor lived in London after his marriage in 1861 to Martha Elizabeth, the sorrowing wife, recorded on the monument. The newspapers passed to other members of the extended family.
This is less ornate and, instead, features vine leaves cascading on a Celtic cross with again the very ornate combined letters of IHS in the centre of the cross, or the nimbus, with a dedication below to Matilda Morris who died on 10 December 1881. Again I haven’t been able to find out anything about her but research is ongoing.
This is an example from Brompton Cemetery and here the grapevine and leaves form an intricate pattern around the cross. I may not be able to read the epitaph on the flat slab beneath until the winter die-off.
Of course the use of the grape and vine might just indicate that they liked a drink or two……but that’s something that we will never know…
I was looking for butterflies, the Marbled White to be exact, on a side path in Brompton Cemetery when I found this memorial. Should I rub one of the Aladdin style lamps and see if a genie appeared to grant me three wishes? I was intrigued as to why they were on the stone and so began my research for this month’s symbol – The Lamp.
The grave is that of Marie Cordelia Winfield who died young at the age of 19. There is another family member commemorated on the headstone who is called James Alfred Winfield. But it’s very lowdown on the stone and the encroaching summer vegetation obscured it making it difficult to read.
Lamps are an unusual symbol to see in a cemetery but Light as a motif in itself has been used in many forms. Often it’s represented by the eternal flame or a downturned/ upturned torch but lamps are rare. Obviously now I’ve said that, I’ll see lamps in every cemetery on every tombstone but so far it’s just been this one.
The Winfield lamps appear to be oil lamps and these have been used as illumination for thousands of years. In Arabian folklore a genie’s lamp contained a magical spirit known as a djinn or genie. This mythical being could help or hinder those who were brave enough to rub the lamp as in the story of Aladdin.
In this story the lamp was seen as a gateway to another world of mystery and other gods. The symbol of the lamp was later adopted by Christianity as many pagan motifs were and it came to symbolise Jesus as the ‘light of the world’. There is a famous passage in the New Testament in Matthew 25:1-13 of the parable of the 10 virgins:
‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.
King James version
There are several other references to lamps in Matthew 6:22-23, Revelation 22:5 and also John 5:35 in which John the Baptist is described as
‘he was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.’
And let’s not forget God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. There is also a famous quotation from Psalms 119:105:
‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’
The lamp as a representation of God and faith appears in other religions including the Jewish Feast of Dedication or Festival of Lights and also Diwali which is the Hindu Festival of Lights. Judaism sees lamps as a way of lighting the way for the righteous and the wise. This is represented by the seven branched ritual Jewish oil lamp which is known as a menorah. Lamps are also an integral part of the Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic churches as they are used on the Holy Table or altar and also to illuminate icons. In Chinese religions an oil lamp is always lit at traditional Chinese shrines before either an image of a deity or a plaque in classical Chinese characters with the name of the deity. Lamps also feature in the Koran. There is also a strong element of self-sacrifice associated with the lamp as it consumes itself in order to bring light to the world.
There is long tradition of lamps representing purity and virginity as well as love. So it’s highly appropriate for the Winfield tombstone which is dedicated to a young girl. When I looked more closely at the Winfield memorial I noticed that both of the lamps were pointing towards the cross in the centre with what I presumed were the rays of the sun coming from behind it almost like a halo. The lamps are obviously lit as fumes are coming from their spouts and, to me, they seemed to be illuminating the way through eternal darkness towards the light of a new life. I thought that it would have been comforting to those left behind to mourn the loss of a daughter who had been taken too soon. As the epitaph says:
‘Greatly loved and sadly missed.’
However, as I explored further in Brompton I noticed actual lamps placed on top of graves or alongside them. These were mainly on the graves of Polish people.
In Poland, there is a long tradition of lighting lamps and candles on their All Saints’ Day which is held on November 1st each year. This is the day before the Christian festival of All Souls Day which is traditionally held on November 2nd. I visited Brompton Cemetery on November 1st 2015 and witnessed the local Polish community’s celebration of All Saints with lit tea candles and lamps on top of Polish and non-Polish graves alike. The lights were again being used as a way to help the souls of the departed on their way and so the tradition continues.
Sometimes a wander through a cemetery can make you feel as if you’re in a heavenly library due to the number of open books reverently laid on top of graves. They’re usually made from stone or granite, inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased and often a decorative book marker complete with carved tassel keeping the pages open. On first appearance the open book can seem a very simple and obvious symbol and it’s used in place of a more formal headstone. But, as with other symbols, it can have alternative meanings.
The 3 dimensional version that is carved to simulate a real book is a 20th century innovation. Prior to this it was rendered in a 2 dimensional, flat form and can be found on 18th and 19th century tombstones as part of an overall design or epitaph. This example is from the Gibbs memorial in Brompton cemetery in which the downwardly pointing finger indicates the large open book.
The open book can almost resemble a visitors book with the deceased’s details inscribed on it as if they were signing in or checking out for eternity and sometimes one page is left blank for perhaps the partner who will follow. On a recent stroll through Beckenham I came across several variations:
For example, there was one with both pages blank which could indicate that the inscription has worn off or that they were ready to be written for eternity. The latter echoes the well-known phrase ‘he or she can be read like an open book’ and the empty pages can indicate that this is how they want to be judged on the Day of Judgement. The echoes the quotation from the Book of Revelation 20:11-15:
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. King James Bible
This is also why the open book is also known as the Book of Life as it contains everything that the deceased has done throughout their life and for which they will now be accountable. Christ is often depicted carrying a book. J C Cooper also sees it as the Book of Life and adds that it can also represent
‘….learning and the spirit of wisdom, revelation and …wisdom.’
It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed.
In this example, a favourite verse has been inscribed on the pages. It is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:3
The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. King James Bible
This makes the symbol almost resemble a Bible. Other suggestions are that it can indicate the grave of a writer, publisher or even more obviously a clergyman.
It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed and a variant is the closed book. I found this one in West Norwood cemetery and it clearly indicates a life that has ended with the final chapter now written.
So the open book has made me think about how my book of life would look on my last resting place. I’m determined to make sure that it’s a good read for any passing visitor.
It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment. And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.
There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides. But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well. Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s. They are buried in the vaults beneath the church. St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.
However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These tombstones are topped with classic memento mori symbols. This is Latin for ‘remember me.’ They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:
‘Remember Man as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Remember man that you must die.’
Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.
St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’
I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols. There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable. However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.
The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.
This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds. It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield. All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’
Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it. This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel. These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible. The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard. In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.
Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a definite smirk. On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them. Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.
Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other. Below them is a small worn hourglass. I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.
Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre ‘Death’s Head.’ This is a human face with wings on either side of it. I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.
I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones. However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable. The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby. It reads:
‘ ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘
A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side. The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.
On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown. It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven. This verse from the Bible refers to it:
A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.
But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay. He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read. He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students. Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.
On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb. There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity. There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one. At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death. The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers. The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens. Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity. In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended. Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful motifs of mortality and resurrection.
St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable. It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard. However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’ 18th century symbols. But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..
It’s a two for one offer on symbols this month folks as I feature two ancient symbols which are often combined together. They both predate Christianity and were then adopted by the newly emerging faith. This was a time when Christians only communicated with fellow believers via a secret language of symbols and codes known only to each other. Discovery would have meant death and so the codes were designed to keep outsiders away.
These symbols are the Alpha and Omega and the Chi-Rho. They’re not all that common in cemeteries but I found these two examples in Brompton Cemetery, London. They stood out because of their simplicity and classicism.
The Alpha and Omega
This fine example which also features the Chi-Rho is on the substantial Platt memorial in Brompton Cemetery. I’ll write about the Chi-Rho later. Thomas Platt was the first to be buried here in 1899 followed by his wife, Annie, who outlived him and died in 1925. Two of their daughters are also buried and commemorated here – one died in 1935 and the other, also called Annie, in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out much about him or the family but this is a substantial memorial with space for more incumbents. It’s made of pink granite in the classical style with a large cross on top and acroteria on each of the corners on the pedestal under the Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho and cross.
The Alpha and Omega are very similar in a way to an ouroboros as they both express eternity. They are formed from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and represent God. He is the first – the alpha – as there is no God before him and the last – the Omega – as there is no God after him. The symbols also appear in several Bible verses including Revelation verses 1.8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,theBeginning andtheEnd,”says the Lord,“who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” King James version
They also appear in Revelation verses 21.6 and verses 22.13 as well as Isiah verses 44.6.
Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths use the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe the name of their God.
The Alpha and Omega have been represented by an eagle and an owl. There has also been a suggestion that the Omega is an ancient representation of the Goddess Ishtar’s headdress and that the Alpha was derived from the ox horn headdress worn by male deities and kings but I would like to see more evidence of this. However it’s an interesting theory on how these symbols might have come into being.
Interestingly, the two motifs are known as a merism. This is a figure of speech that articulates the beginning of something and the ending of something with the implication that it also refers to all things in between. For example, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer etc.
However, Douglas Fielder in ‘Stories in Stone’ has suggested the Alpha and Omega may be the representation of the beginning and end of a life and that would certainly fit in with their use within cemeteries. J C Cooper’s definition is that they denote the beginning and end of all things.
This is a striking example from Brompton Cemetery London and is on the grave of Matthew Boyd Bredon. He was an Irishman who served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and rose through the ranks. He became a Lieutenant in 1875 and a Captain in 1878 and became a Major. The epitaph states that he died in Swatow, or Shantou is it was originally known, in China in 1900. This was the time of the Boxer Rebellion in which treaty ports were imposed on China by the British and other foreign powers who wanted to open up trade. However, these ports weren’t strictly ports and instead were separate communities in which foreigners lived according to their own customs, traditions and rules of law. Bredon was also the Deputy Commissioner of Customs in China at the time of his death. In 1900 a brass eagle was presented to his local church, St Saviours in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland in his memory.
The Chi-Rho was created by using the first two capital letters from the Greek word for Christ:
These are Chi and Rho and this is the earliest form of christogram. The definition of a christogram is, according to Wikipedia,
‘ a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ and is a traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian church.’
The combination of the letters have led to claims that the Chi Rho symbolises the status of Jesus as the risen Christ as the vertical stroke of the Rho intersects the centre of the Chi. Thus it could be seen as a symbol of resurrection when used in cemeteries.
However, it wasn’t originally a religious symbol and was, instead, used to mark an especially valuable or relevant passage in a page. When used like this it was known as a Chresten which meant ‘good.’ It also appeared on ancient Egyptian coins.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, (306-337) used the Chi Rho as part of a military standard known as a Labarum. He had a dream in which he felt that military success would follow if he put a heavenly and divine symbol on his soldiers shields to protect them
From 350 onwards The Chi Rho began to appear on Christian sarcophagi and frescoes and has been found in the celebrated Roman catacombs. It came to Britain via the Roman invasion and can be seen on a mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, UK.
Nowadays it has been adopted as a popular tattoo symbol.
I did try and discover the significance of these two symbols to these two men who both died relatively young but a search through coats of arms and regimental cap badges in the case of Bredon and other sites with Platt yielded no new information. But they have left us with impressive examples of these early and powerful symbols.
This is a more unusual symbol although hands often feature as motifs in cemeteries usually in the more familiar clasped hands..
The Pointing Finger is usually one finger, the index one, pointing upwards or downwards. On the three that I saw, it was the right hand that was being depicted with the remaining fingers and thumb turned down into the palm. I have yet to see the downward pointing version but rest assured that it doesn’t indicate that the departed is going ‘down below’ or to Hell. Instead it can signify an untimely, sudden or unexpected death. As you’ve probably already guessed, the upwardly pointed finger is meant to reassure the grieving family that their loved one has ascended to Heaven and has received the reward of the righteous.
However, I found these three lovely examples in Beckenham Cemetery during a recent visit, much to my surprise, and they made me wonder why it isn’t more popular. In all of these the pointing finger and hand are surrounded by flowers.
The first one is to John James Lumsden who died on 25 November 1903 aged 63. It’s very well carved with a daffodil on one side of the hand and two sprays of Lily of the Valley flanking the hand. When I first saw it, a thick branch of ivy obscured the flower on the other side of the daffodil. But on a return visit in January 2017 the branch had been trimmed back and a rose with one full blown bloom and a bud was now visible again. The bud is significant as it often appears on childrens graves to symbolise a life unlived, that never fully bloomed and was ‘nipped in the bud.’ But not on this one.
In floriography or the language of flowers the daffodil is an important representation of resurrection.This is because of its association with Easter, rebirth and renewal. The Lily of the Valley is also associated with Spring as its month is May. Other qualities that the Lily represents are chastity, purity and the return of happiness. It’s mentioned in The Song of Solomon 2.1
‘I am the rose of Sharon
And the lily of the valley.’
There’s also the legend that Mary’s tears turned into the lily of the valley at the exact spot when she cried at the Cross so an alternate name for the flowers is ‘Mary’s tears.’ The Lily is also meant to have healing powers and has other nicknames such as ‘Jacob’s Tears’ and ‘the ladder to heaven’.
This is to Charles Henry McKay who died on 1 November 1910 at only 23 and was the only son of Charles and Ellen McKay as it states on the epitaph. Although the flowers surrounding the pointing finger and hand are the same here as on Lumden’s, on this one they are more stylised and 2D. They would have mourned his short life and unfulfilled ambitions. So there is an added poignancy to the rosebud as his was a life cut short. There is also the word ‘GONE’ carved on the cuff of the hand which emphasises that he has gone to a better place. It really stood out amongst its neighbouring grey stones so it may have been recently cleaned or restored.
There is a third memorial featuring the pointed finger which is in the same style as Lumsden’s but not as well kept. .This was to ‘Will, eldest son of William and Sarah Greenfield. Born 10 December 1874 died 1 August 1905’
Again, another memorial to a life cut short as Will died aged only 31.Three other members of the Greenfield family are also commemorated on the headstone.
To our eyes they could be seen as sentimental but I found them very touching with their aim to comfort those left behind through the use of flowers.
But here’s a mystery from my own local churchyard:
This is to a woman who died at 38 called Georgiana Margaret Barns and it has a pointing finger on the headstone. But instead of pointing upwards or downwards, it’s pointing to the left and apparently into thin air. The hand appears to have a woman’s lacy cuff and I noticed that, although her husband’s dates are also recorded, he isn’t actually buried there. Instead he lies in Hilderstone churchyard in Stafford. He died at 76 nearly 20 years after his wife. Is the finger pointing towards his resting place? Is it a personal symbol known only to them? I found a few details about them online but not much more so I am intrigued and mystified by this one.
I have to admit that The Pointing Finger symbol does remind me a little of a palmist drawing of the hand but in the ones that I’ve seen it’s also very decorative and moving.
Firstly, Happy New Year to my readers and happy symbol spotting!! This month I have two symbols for you to read about.
I first saw this symbol during a visit to Beckenham Cemetery. It’s a less well-known symbol and stands for victory or truimph over death. It has, from earliest times, been a symbol of leadership, distinction and royalty. A variety of saints also wore crowns to indicate that they were either a martyr or of royal blood. Also, according to Julian Litten, it is ‘The Crown of Life’ which is a reward for those who stayed faithful until death. There are 3 biblical quotes which illustrate this:
Interestingly enough, J C Cooper says that it is also ‘an architectural emblem of the celestial world and form the point of exit from this world and entry into the divine.’ So the crown has several interesting connotations.
In the Jewish faith it’s known as ‘The Crown of Good Name’ which alludes to the deceased as being of ‘exceptionally noble character.’ However, it can also be a representation of the head of the family or of a household.
This eye-catching example comes from Beckenham Cemetery.
This example comes from Brompton where it is at the top of a very ornate and beautiful memorial. This is a radiate crown and, according to J C Cooper, it can represent ‘ the energy and power contained in the head which was regarded as the seat of life-soul, …an attribute of sun gods,….of supernatural people and the points of the crown symbolise the rays of the sun…’ or it may just be an attractive decorative device.
Crown of thorns:
This is a variant on the crown as it is a representation of suffering, passion and martyrdom. It’s based on the ‘crown plaited by the soldiers and imposed upon Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate’ according to Julian Litten. J C Cooper asserts that this was a ’parody of the Roman Emperor’s crown of roses’. The soldiers then mocked Jesus by kneeling in front of him and hailing him as ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ A potent emblem of royalty and power had been turned into one of pain and degradation. But the crown of thorns is a prelude to Jesus being given a far worthier crown in Heaven. This is confirmed in Hebrews 2:9: “
But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honourbecause of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone”
In a famous painting of the executed King Charles 1, the Eikon Basilike, he has abandoned his earthly crown, the symbol of majesty, for the crown of thorns that he is holding in his hand as a representation of his suffering.