Symbolism in Stone


Oak Grove is a non-denominational city cemetery. The majority of burials here could be classified as Protestant-affiliated. Saint Patrick’s cemetery in the north end of the city as well as several Roman Catholic church cemeteries within the city contain the remains of most of the city’s Catholic population. So it is not surprising that saints, angels and crosses are very few within the walls of Oak Grove. Tablet-shaped stones and obelisks are the favored shapes to be found, even among the stones from the 1855-1900.


The only figural madonna at Oak Grove

Granite, marble and the very durable metallic monuments compose the majority of markers. The great beauty of Oak Grove lies in the landscaping of the grounds and the intricate carvings and symbolism on many of the older stones. Although there are sections of contemporary, fairly nondescript markers in the northeast end, the great majority of grave markers in this cemetery are from the golden age of monument carving when hand tools were used and artistry and pride of workmanship were the key elements of the craft. The Fall River area was famous for granite, especially pink granite, and this ready resource is much-evident in use.  The slide presentation above contains many of the symbols associated with fraternal orders and particular Victorian sentiments and virtues.

Anchor- Steadfastness, Hope, a maritime career

Bellflower-Constancy and gratitude

Calla lily- Majesty, Beauty, Marriage

Daisy- Innocence, grave of young child, the “day’s eye”

Fern- Frankness, Humility, Sincerity

Laurel (wreath) Victory, Immortality, Eternity

Lily of the Valley- Innocence, Purity, one of the first Spring flowers

Lyre- References a harp, heaven, angelic music, occasionally used on the grave of a poet.

Madonna Lily- Purity

Rose- Univeral symbol of Love, queen of flowers, used most often on graves of women

Wheat or wheat sheaf- Long life, the reaping of years, productive and abundant

Oak leaves- Strength, Endurance, Faith and Virtue

Open Book- Book of Life, List of St. Peter, life of the deceased as an open book, a pure  life

Tree or log stones- These could be ordered from Sears and Roebuck catalogue, and were used for the Woodsmen fraternity as well as carpenters, builders, lumbermen, or to suggest by their height as short life cut off in its prime, head of the family, and occasionally contains a nest with birds suggesting children of the deceased.

Dove- Most popular animal seen in cemeteries, symbolizes Peace, Holy Spirit

Hands Clasping- An earthly farewell, a heavenly welcome or matrimony

Curtain, Drapery, Veil- Passing from one existence to another, an ending

Hourglass- Fleeting Time, Tempus Fugit, inevitability of earthly Death

Door, arch, gateway- Passing from one existence to the next

Ship- Seafaring life, a journey, or symbol for the Chirch universal with the mast as the cross

Torch-  Upside down position has the meaning of extinguished life.

Pine Tree- Evergreen, Eternal

The Funeral Card



Victorians liked keepsakes of all kinds.  The idea of some sort of printed memorial which could be tucked into family Bibles, placed on mantels in the parlor, and kept for the future generations found great favor in the nineteenth century. The custom of funeral cards is still observed today although the size and intricacy of the funeral card has changed.  Today we often find the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or a contemporary poem along with the deceased’s dates, name and age.  The Victorian and early twentieth century cards were on very heavy stock and featured the symbolism Victorians understood, such as the opening gate, cross and crown, dove of the spirit, laurel wreath etc.  Suitable mourning poetry was nearly always included below the name and dates of the departed Loved One. Early cards were generally in either black or white with gold or silver lettering.  (Examples from the blogger’s collection).





The Harvest of Years


Another symbol which was particularly popular on headstones of men who had lived a long span of 70 or more years was the sheaf of wheat.  There are several excellent examples carved in very high relief to be found at Oak Grove. The symbolism of gathering in the harvest of years parallels the familiar figure of Death, with his scythe, preparing to reap the harvest at Life’s end. 

 srreaper4.jpg Gustave Dore’s Grim Reaper

 Occasionally one sees a single blade of wheat, millet, oats, or another cereal grain.


Images in Black and White

weisse_rose.jpg Oak Grove may well be one of the best places in the state to find examples of Victorian funeral symbolism, which was a language understood by all who passed through the cemetery in the nineteenth century. The Language of Flowers had long been a part of Victorian sentiment, and this transfered to the grave as well. Ladies often received floral tributes in stone of roses, ivy, fern and lilies signfying hope for the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgement, love, humility and sincerity (fern) and the clinging ivy (undying affection). Other symbols shown in the black and white slide presentation below are:
Olive branch– peace , Oak leaves– strength, fidelity, endurance, Palm- victory, triumph over death, Laurel wreath– victory, eternity, immortality, Anchor– hope or a career on the sea, Scroll or Book– Book of Life, scroll of St. Peter, Roll of the Saved, Doorway or Arch– portal between heaven and earth, Urn– harking back to Egyptian canopic jars, containers of the Spirit, Curtain– the end of the worldly life, Wreaths, Swags and Garlands– victory over death, immortal circle, honor, Lamb– grave of an infant or child.

All of the black and white photographs were taken with an inexpensive disposable camera using Kodac black and white film. Although it is pleasant to walk in cemeteries on sunny days, some of the best photographs are obtained on overcast days when shadows and bright sun do not interfer with capturing the sculptural detail in dark bas-relief. Keep a disposable camera camera handy in the glove compartment, for you never know when you may wish to capture an image of a particularly remarkable monument.

[slideshow id=576460752330284866&w=600&h=475]

The Granite Entry Arch 1873

 Perhaps the most recalled image of Oak Grove is its graceful granite Gothic Revival archway on the west side of the cemetery.  Prospect Street terminates under the arch.  Although the cemetery itself was designed in 1855 by Josiah Brown ( a city surveyor and architect), the archway was constructed in 1873.  The archway style is not unique to Oak Grove, and may be found in other New England cemeteries of the period.  “Oak Grove” is one of the most popular cemetery names in America, and in Fall River’s case, it is appropriate due to the extensive planting of oak trees on the nearly 100 acres of land.

What is remarkable are the exquisite wrought iron gates on either side of the arch; on the right, in front of the office, on the left, in front of the former Ladies Comfort Station. It is unfortunate that no photographs exist of the raising of this arch in 1873, for it must have taken ingenuity and strength.  Visitors to the cemetery who pass beneath this arch always pause to read the inscription :

The Shadows Have Fallen And They Wait for the Day

Memorial to Civil War Soldiers

tpoppies.gif  The first sight which captures the eye when passing under the great granite arch of Oak Grove is the obelisk given by Colonel Richard Borden in memory of fallen Union soldiers. Row upon row of simple white marble markers are reminders of the dark days of the Civil War and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.  This is a peaceful place at sunset when shafts of golden light fall through the trees upon the pale stones. 

 Abide With Me, tune Eventide by William H. Monk 1861 Words by Henry F. Lyte

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.