The cross, the rose, the lamb: Carved into Green-Wood Cemetery's gravestones are thousands of hidden messages and secret symbols. On Sunday, December 11th, the Obscura Society set out decipher this symbolism of death and resurrection.
The Obscura Society met on a brisk winter day at Brooklyn's most beautiful cemetery with Allison Meier, our resident cemetery aficionado, for a tour of Green-Wood Cemetery's hidden cemetery symbolism.
While most people are familiar with the visual symbology of Christian cemeteries: the cross, the lamb, the rose, their meaning and origin are usually obscured. Hidden among the more quotidian Christian symbols are other less familiar icons: an upside down star with the word FATAL in it, a passion flower, a three linked chain, a inverted torch, a stump with a beetle on it, all of which reveal affiliations and stories about the lives of the men and women who lie below them.
The oldest gravestones in New York cemeteries have simple shapes and designs, often a cherub or death's head. Pioneering cemetery scholars James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen felt that "the death's-head motif accompanied the harsh beliefs of orthodox Puritanism." As time went on, and perhaps as life got easier, the graves got ever more elaborate and ornate. Greenwood represents the height of the golden age of elaborate gravestones: the Victorian era.
Among the favorite cemetery symbols of the Victorians was the obelisk, and our tour through Green-Wood took us to numerous examples. Victorians were fascinated and romanced by Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns, and were generally obsessed with classical and ancient civilizations. By the early 1800s, stout Christian citizens were marking their dead with what was once a pagan monument to the Egyptian god Ra. (Ironically, a line in the bible specifically calls for the smashing of such symbols saying "you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars.") While the obelisk was originally meant to represent a sun ray or "a finger of the sun," for Christians it came to represent a reaching up to God, and the release of the spirit to heaven.
One particularly interesting obelisk marks the mass grave of those who died in the Brooklyn Theater Fire, the third worst theater fire in US history. Though the monument says it marks the remains of 278 people there are probably over 300 people buried beneath it. The fire was so bad that it proved impossible to count the exact number of dead.
Among the most interesting symbols in the cemetery are the icons relating to fraternal organizations. Masonic symbols can be found throughout the cemetery often represented by the standard compass and square, though affiliation can be also represented by the all seeing eye, the beehive, a woman with an anchor, and a mosaic black and white tile pattern on the top of the grave.
Three chain links represent membership in the "Independent Order of the Odd Fellows," a group begun in the 1700s and dedicated to acts of altruism. Today it is said to be the "largest united international fraternal order in the world under one head". The three links, sometimes shown with the initials F,L, and T, are meant to represent friendship, love and truth. Another fraternal organization found in the cemetery is the Woodmen of the World, a non-denominational insurance society, meant to "clear away problems of financial security for its members." Graves of W.O.W affiliates are often made in the shape of tree stumps, often with "a mallet or beetle, an ax, or a wedge" on them. Their motto "Dum, Tacet Clamat" - "Though Silent He Speaks" - often appears on the gravestone as well.
Perhaps the most frightening of these icons is that of the Eastern Star a woman's masonic organization. Membership in the Eastern Star is represented by an upside down star with the word "FATAL" in it, apparently an acronym for "Fairest Among Thousands, Altogether Lovely."
The tour, held on a brisk winter's day, wrapped up after about two hours, with much of the cemetery unexplored, and many symbols still left mysterious. Plenty for next time, when we will learn how to tell a Calvary Cross from a Greek Cross, what shape your tombstone has to be to keep the devil from reclining on it, and how to know which of the dead were sinning while they lived. By all means, join us in our explorations.
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The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!
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