Salted with Sharks

Tombstone Tourism: Exploring the Past Through Gravestones and Monuments

In Calendar, Culture Bluffs, Elsewhere in BenCo..., Historic Elberta on June 10, 2013 at 10:15 am

By Mary Link

Al Bryant, a local taphophile (someone who studies gravestones) gave a presentation for the Benzie Genealogical Society monthly meeting on Wednesday, May 8.

Showing pictures of tombstones of the famous and infamous, including his distant cousin, Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), Mr. Bryant explained the symbolism used in designing gravestones and the various types of markers.

Religious and fraternal groups have had their own special symbols and identification for posterity. In the nineteenth century there were more than 300 national fraternal organizations, the most obvious in Benzie County being the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), whose markers are in our local cemeteries.

Crosses on tombstones used to indicate a person of the Roman Catholic faith but today are used by/for anyone. An anchor symbolizes hope, a heart charity, and the combination of a cross, anchor, and heart is faith, hope, and charity. The language of flowers symbolizing friendship (white roses), sensitivity (lily of the valley), modesty (violets), and a message of love (pansies) is used in grave markers as well. Other symbols are: a lamb or dove indicating a child’s grave; weeping willow tree for sorrow; an open book for a life well spent, or openness; a closed book for “life is over”; gates for the gates of heaven. An ax cutting a tree indicates a life cut short.

Bryant showed pictures of gravestones that have unusual characteristics, such as those containing photographs and sculptures of the departed. One image had a large replica of a cell phone on the grave. There were Ouija boards, lightbulbs, a Scrabble board, and homemade grave markers of all kinds. Anonymous graves requested by people who felt their life had no significance (as that of an English poet, who died in Rome in the 1800s) or graves of people unidentified. Joe Hill’s ashes were divided up into envelopes and sent to all the states in the union except Utah, where he had been executed for murder and “didn’t want to be caught dead.”

Mr. Bryant suggested the book Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister and the website Find a Grave and noted that Benzie County was well represented there because of the work of the Genealogical Society. He distributed pamphlets about cleaning gravestones and photographing them (noting that rubbings are not considered proper anymore because they may cause damage).

Bryant is a volunteer at the Darcy Library in Beulah and is willing to help anyone who is interested in becoming a taphophile. There is a new organization, the Benzie Area Tombstone Tourists, that meets the fourth Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Beulah library.

The next meeting of the Benzie Genealogical Society is June 12 at 2 p.m. at the Benzie Area Historical Museum on Traverse Highway in Benzonia and the program will be by Ted and Jo Bahry, on “Stalking the Ghost Post Offices.” Everyone is welcome!

Mary Link is a retired librarian, archivist, and volunteer cataloger at the BAHS. She lives in Frankfort.

  1. Gee, I’m a published reporter!

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