Secrets and symbols – the grave language of the Victorian cemetery

Picturesque Perfect – the lovely landscape of Arnos Vale Cemetery
July 28, 2021
White Gentleman posing in a library sat with his arm resting
The paper bag king – Elisha Smith Robinson
October 14, 2021

Secrets and symbols – the grave language of the Victorian cemetery

A walk around Arnos Vale Cemetery will give you lots of lovely epitaphs and sentiments to read.  However there is a whole other language on these stones, just not in a written language.  It is the language of symbols and images that needs a little more knowledge and skill to translate.  When you do understand this language, a whole other level of meaning will be revealed to you on a wander around a burial site. In this blog, I’ll explain the meaning behind some of the most commonly found symbols in the cemetery.

View up the Ceremonial Way at Arnos Vale Cemetery

Increasing literacy

At the start of the Victorian era much of the population were not literate.  Although compulsory schooling was introduced in 1880 the majority of Victorians particularly the poor could not read.  So the symbols found on graves made them more meaningful for someone who may not be able to read the words.  Victorian garden cemeteries were envisaged as places for everyone to walk and improve themselves morally.  This could include looking at the beautiful trees and of course viewing the beautiful memorials.  Interesting, although many Victorians in Bristol were Christian, many of the symbols in the cemetery have pagan roots.

Common symbols

When writing about symbols in cemeteries, I am only writing mainly about English Victorian and early 20th century symbols.  I focus on symbols found in our cemetery, some rare but most a regular feature. The rare ones will come up in another blog post.  You will not see a winged hourglass, skull and cross bones or scythe in this post. One of the most common symbols found on the site is the urn.

Draped urn hang with a wreath on a stone pillar

The covered and uncovered urn

The urn was actually used in ancient burial grounds as a storage vessel for ashes and bones after cremation.  In the Victorian era the urn became a symbol for death and sadness.  Urns were not used for burial and as cremation was not legal then, they were not used for remains either.  They usually sat on top of a monument as an expression of the death of the body but not the soul. Some are carved with drapery which represented veil between life and death.  This reflects death customs. Victorians would drape items in the house when a person died. This could include the clock (which was also stopped), the mirrors and even the door knobs.

This Shire publication by Dr Helen Frisby is a good starter for learning more about death traditions and customs.

Obelisk – Egyptian symbol of eternal life

Another regular piece of symbolism found in the cemetery is the obelisk.. Originally the obelisk is an ancient Egyptian symbol found at the entrances to temples. It represented the sun god Ra In more modern times,  Cleopatra’s needle is was erected in 1878 after it was gifted to the government by the ruler of Egypt.

Melsom Monument on the path surrounds by trees

The obelisk is often used by non-conformist Christians as grave markers as they saw the cross as too catholic. It was  seen as pointing towards heaven and God. However as a fashionable symbol, Anglican did use it too.  The largest obelisk in the cemetery belongs to the Melsom family.  This family of stone importers chose a prominent position for their family grave marker so it would be seen from the entrance to the cemetery.  The memorial is not plain and decorated with a wreath, a symbol that I’ll come on to shortly.

The Wreath

Wreath or garland of roses

The Melsom memorial is certainly not the only grave to feature a wreath or garland. The wreath in Victorian symbolic language represents victory.  In the case of a cemetery, it represents the victory over death by the deceased as they (hopefully) have gone on to heaven.  Wreath are another pagan symbol that was co-opted by Victorian society.  During Ancient Greek times, a wreath would be presented to a winning Olympic athlete. During Roman times, generals who won battles would be presented with Laurel or Oak wreaths. Wreaths are found in many different forms and plants.  They might be worn by angels or mourning women.  They are also sometimes ‘hung’ on memorials or held in hands.

Hands

Love Tour

Clasped hands surrounded by Ivy. Left cuff is masculine, Right is feminine

Hands also feature heavily in Victorian memorial art.  They can be seen in prayer, holding all sorts of objects or clasped.  The most lovely of these is probably two hands clasping each other.  These usually represent the hands of a couple, quite often one cuff is feminine and the other masculine.  This represents the everlasting bond of a couple and their hope of being reunited in heaven.

Floriography

Stone lily on a cross with circle behind, in marble

Flowers in the Victorian period had great meaning and this language was called Floriography. This language transmitted in part to the cemetery.  A rose was and still is a symbol of love.  On a grave,  an open rose usually represented a married woman, but a closed rose bud represented a child or unmarried women.  Lilies are also strongly associated with both death and cemeteries. My grandmother associated them strongly with death and did not allow them in the house as they were considered bad luck.  Lilies also had a practical purpose in death rituals.  The lily is strongly perfumed and could mask the smell of death.   Lilies on a cross were a common symbol in Victorian art of all types as it represented Christ and also the virgin Mary.

 

A new world

Hopefully when you next wander Arnos Vale, or any other historic Victorian Cemetery, hopefully you will spot some of these symbols.  There is lots more to discover, and another blog will come soon.  To read the landscape check out this blog by Dr Udall. You can take a relaxing stroll around the landscape 9-5 everyday of the week.  You can grab a map by popping into the shop 10.30-4.30 Wed to Sun.

 

References

Books

Ross P (2021) A Tomb with a View – The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Rutherford S (2008)The Victorian Cemetery (shire book)

Standford P (2013)How to Read a Graveyard: Journeys in the Company of the Dead

Yorke T, (2010) Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials: The Secret History of Cemeteries & the Graves We find Within Them: Symbols, Styles & Epitaphs (Britain’s Architectural History) 

Papers

Frisby, H (2015) ‘Them Owls Know’: Portending Death in Later Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-century England, Folklore, 126:2, 196-214

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