What gravestones at a pioneer cemetery can teach us
By Ann Koppy, BHSoc Historian
The search for local history often takes the researcher and heritage explorer into the field and far away from books, microfilms, and library shelves. The study of gravestones from the late 19th and early 20th century provides a wealth of information in addition to their purpose: to memorialize the d
eceased and family members often buried alongside. The study of regionality of burial practices is called necrogeography and from it, patterns of settlement emerge. Medical history, social, political, and economic themes are there, as well.
Information Left on Gravestones Can Reveal Much
Look for early medical practices and advances in health care. Average life expectancy, cause of death– stillborn babies, diagnoses for diseases unknown at that time (ie. “softening of the brain” at a pioneer cemetery in Coos Bay)– can be documented. A large number of people who died at the same time indicate a disaster or disease. Smallpox, scarlet fever, and cholera were all unchecked. The 1918-19 influenza pandemic for example killed tens of millions worldwide, some in Beaverton.
What’s in a Name
Migration patterns give a clue about a region’s ethnicity. Observe first names common to an era. How have they changed? Are they re-emerging today? Surnames reveal the country of origin of the deceased or their ancestors. The names of Swiss and German immigrants are prevalent in Bethany and Cedar Mill. Among them: Hamel, Saltzman, Siegenthaler, and Brugger.
Types of Markers
Very large obelisks and monuments usually denote wealth and social status. A cenotaph tells us the marker may memorialize a group of persons or someone who is interred elsewhere, perhaps lost at sea, or a veteran whose body wasn’t recovered.
Commonly Seen Symbols
Use caution, however, when reading a stone. There may be more than one interpretation to each symbol and debate continues on specific meanings. What did it represent? Has it varied over the years? The life and times of the departed should always be considered before making too many generalizations. A boat may denote crossing over to eternal life or the individual’s love of boating. Many of these are found in the Beaverton-Tigard area:
- Hourglass: The passage of time or a life
- Weeping willow: Mourning, immortality
- Anchor: Hope or a seafaring occupation
- Angel: Heaven
- Fruit: Fertility and abundance
- Handshake or clasped hands: Farewell or a husband and wife united in eternity
- Hands: Hand of God pointing up (confirmation of life after death) or down (mortality)
- FLT: Friendship, love, truth
- FCL: Fraternity, charity, loyalty. Also the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic and Daughters of the Union Veterans of the Civil War
- Tree: Tree of life
- Lamb: A child’s grave
- Three links in a chain: Independent Order of Odd Fellows
Explore and Learn
Exploring cemeteries and understanding that markers are historical documents has led descendants, genealogists, and history enthusiasts to rediscover their heritage. Combined with family documents, censuses, and community records, tombstones are significant textual sources. Artistic perspectives of monument design as well as civic, religious, and military service, and fraternal affiliation link past to present.
Categorised in: History Today
This post was written by Michael Wong