Category Archives: Graves

Ship Profiles

It is easy to assume that the symbol of a ship on a gravestone identifies the deceased as a sailor, or that he was involved in the seafaring profession, and indeed this is true in many cases. Yet, this symbol can also be found on the graves of people who died at sea.

Flickr photographer, Doctor Beef
Flickr photographer, Doctor Beef

The ship may also represent Noah’s Ark, a ship guided by the Lord, that weathered the storm against overwhelming odds.


As an ancient Christian symbol the ship was used during times when Christians needed to disguise the cross in the form of the ship’s mast.


A ship is the symbol of a posthumous voyage where the world of the dead lies across a water barrier. Sailing into the wind, the ship safely carries the soul into the afterlife.


A full rigged sailing ship with sails open to the wind signifies, ‘Homeward Bound’, carrying the souls of the dead to Heaven.


Here we lie in a horizontal position
Like a ship laid up
Stripped of her sails and rigging.


Lo!  Lost remembrance drops a pious tear
And holy friendship stands a mourner here.


Home is the sailor
Home from the sea.


When soon or late we reach that coast
O’er life’s rough ocean driven
May we rejoice no wonder or lost
Our family in heaven      1876


When the shore is won at last
Who will count the billows past.


Where tempests cease and surges swell no more.

Hand Symbols

The image of hands in some form is very common on gravestones and they are most often shown praying, pointing, clasping or blessing.

Clasped hands shown in a handshake identify the deceased meeting his maker and is a symbolic of a welcome into Heaven. The hands are often seen with the word Farewell inscribed above or below the hands: farewell to earthly existence with the hope of meeting in eternity.


The depiction of a man holding a woman’s hand (identified by a frilly cuff) indicates marriage or a close bond between individuals, and represents unity and affection even after death. The person who died first holds the other’s hand, guiding the spouse to heaven.

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Most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open.

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When the handshake is enclosed within a wreath of flowers it denotes heavenly joy and bliss.


Praying hands are a symbol of devotion, a pious person in life or prayer for eternal life

Hands praying    Hands praying star

Hands holding a book are an embodiment of Faith

gggHand Holding Bible Mumma Cemetery Antietam Battlefield Sharpsburg MD (13) quaker-cemetery-hand-with-bible

A hand holding a chain with a broken link symbolizes the death of a family member.

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A hand holding a heart is a symbol used by the fraternal organizations I.O.O.F (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) and Masons. It symbolizes charity and is common on 19th century memorials.


A hand holding a palm leaf is the hand of God reaching down from a cloud to lay a flower on a grave


Hands making the “Live long and prosper” sign (hands touching at thumbs and sometimes forefingers joined) represents members of the priestly tribe of Aaron. It is a benediction or blessing.

jewish priestly blessing

This image represents the hand of God bringing a soul unto himself.


Scroll Symbolism

These gravestones are engraved with a scroll which is a symbol of life and time. Rolled at both ends it indicates a life that is unfolding like a scroll of uncertain length where the past and future are hidden.

It can also suggest honor and commemoration; the Law and the Scriptures.

A scroll can also represent the Torah which represents the first five books of the Old Testament.

Granada, Spain


Knox Presbyterian Fire

When former U.S. president William Howard Taft visited the first Knox Presbyterian Church at 142 Ontario Street, Stratford, Ontario, Canada, he is reported to have called the 211 feet steeple the “most graceful and pleasing” he had seen.

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1913, the church steeple was hit by lightning as an electrical storm passed over the area, igniting a fire that quickly spread, destroying the sanctuary, and engulfing the roof and steeple.


When firefighters attempted to battle the flames, their hose streams were unable to reach the top of the steeple. A ladder had been placed in an attempt to gain control of a fire in the roof, and Fire Chief Hugh Durkin, Police Chief John McCarthy Jr., and Constable Matthew Hamilton were endeavouring to move the ladder into position on the west side of the church when the steeple came crashing down. All three men were killed in the collapse, and a fourth man, firefighter Syd Vanstone, was badly injured.

Note: In the late 19th century, firefighting was done with the assistance of a team of horses, and the department was not fully motorized at the time of the fire.

On May 13, 2013, the 100th anniversary of the fire, the three men who died were honoured during a ceremony at the Stratford-Perth Museum. Following the service, a plaque was unveiled in the garden area in memory of the three men. The sacrifice made by members of the Stratford Fire and Police Departments, in the battling of the fire at Knox Church.


Stratford perth museum

Hugh Durkin was only 39 on May 13, 1913 when the steeple of Knox Presbyterian Church came crashing down. After his funeral and long public procession through the downtown streets of the city, Durkin, a bachelor, was laid to rest in Lot 13 of St. George’s section at Avondale Cemetery, next to his father Michael who had died seven years before.

Knox procession

A gravestone was never erected for the fallen fire chief and speculation is that it was a monetary issue on the part of his immediate family. When this recently came to the attention of the current fire department, Durkin’s family members took action to remedy the oversight. Stratford Memorials donated a grey stone with the depiction of a typical bugle used by fire chiefs at the time to shout orders to their firefighters. The Stratford Professional Firefighters’ Association is contributing to its care and maintenance.

stratford bugle

Durkin was an accomplished horse rider and was described as a “courageous, daring and efficient firefighter.” He was buried on May 15, 1913 in Avondale Cemetery Section St. George, lot 13.

durkin memorial

Constable Hamilton had been on the force for five years, and as the night policeman he discovered the fire and raised the alarm at 12:35 a.m. He was described as a constable who would go out of his way to help someone rather than simply throw them in jail. He was 46 years old when he was struck with debris during the collapse of the church steeple. He was buried on May 15, 1913 in Avondale Cemetery Section R, lot 49.

The Chief followed in his father’s footsteps as Stratford’s chief constable. He started his career as a county constable, and later a town constable under his father. In 1883 he was employed as a detective on The Grand Trunk Railway and was known for his clever detective work. He was appointed Chief of Police for the city of Stratford in 1888. He was 66 when he died and was buried on May 15, 1913 at Avondale Cemetery Section H, lot 44. His grave can be found halfway down the hillside behind the chapel in Block H. It is a grey granite square with a horizontal, round pillared top. Here lies John A. McCarthy Jr., Stratford Police Chief who died fighting the Knox Presbyterian Church fire in 1913.


Avondale Cemetery, 4 Avondale Avenue, Stratford, Perth County, Ontario, N5A 6M4, Canada.

Body Snatchers

Body snatching was prevalent in the 19th century, and is often incorrectly referred to as grave robbing (stealing of personal effects from corpses.)

Prior to 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical and lecturing purposes in the UK were those sentenced to capital punishment and dissection by the courts. Demand for bodies increased with the number of new medical schools, and soon outstripped supply creating a new criminal enterprise of body snatching. It became commonplace for relatives and friends to watch over a fresh grave to prevent it from being violated.

Cast iron grates (mortsafes) were placed over coffins to protect the deceased. These grates were also placed over graves in the ground, or in the case of preventing robbery of a tomb or crypt, the mortsafe took the form of an iron fence. However, these options proved to be costly and burdensome.

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In a small cemetery hidden from view, behind a wall on Old Edinburgh Road in Dalkeith, lie very old gravestones. A watch tower dating from 1824, was created specifically to guard against grave robbers and supplied with armed guards to deter body snatchers who were stealing fresh bodies to sell to Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh for medical experimentation.

grave robbers watchtowe

In Edinburgh, the infamous team of Burke and Hare shirked the idea of disinterring bodies and created a fresh supply of cadavers by resorting to murder.

…and on a side note…there is a creepy tradition in Indonesia where the locals ritually exhume their ancestors’ mummified bodies every few years, dress them in a new outfit and tour them through the village before returning them to their place of rest.

The Webster Family

The tiered waterfall at Spencer Gorge Conservation Area, Dundas, Ontario, Canada, was originally known as Dr. Hamilton’s falls, owner of the land in 1818. The waterfalls and 78 acres of the surrounding land were purchased by Joseph Webster who had arrived from England in 1820. The Webster family manor still stands on Webster’s Falls Road, and their gravestones have been preserved in a small section just off the Bruce Trail, on the way to Tews Falls.

Spencer Gorge Park

Webster falls

The stones are in poor shape although an attempt has been made to preserve them. They lie behind a protective fence.

Dundas 1876

Come near my friends and cast an eye
Then go your way prepare to die
Learn here your doom and know you must
One day like me be turned to dust.

Dundas 1870 

Dundas 1878

In death’s cold arms lies sleeping
A tender parent, a companion dear
In love she lived, in peace she died
Her life was asked but was denied.

According to romantic legend, an Indian maiden named Na-Go-She-Onong (Evening Star in the Ojibway language), fell in love with a white man. Her lover was killed by a jealous Indian suitor, and rather than live without him, she pressed his dead body to hers and plunged into the roaring waters of Webster’s Falls.

Their Name Liveth Forever More

Military Stones are uniformly plain and simple with little decoration which is in complete opposition to the purpose of honoring a life freely given to uphold the ideals of others.

He answered his country’s call

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is an organization whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves and places of commemoration of military service members who died in the two World Wars. The principles of CWGC are:

  • Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial.
  • Headstones and memorials should be permanent
  • There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed

Cemeteries with over 1,000 burials have a Stone of Remembrance to commemorate those of all faiths and no faith. The Cross of Sacrifice is placed in any cemetery with over 40 graves. Most CWGC cemeteries have a bronze registry box which contains a registry of burials and a plan of the cemetery. The box also contains a visitors’ book.

His duty done

Graves in CWGC cemeteries are arranged in straight rows marked by uniform headstones, rectangular in shape with a slightly arched top. Headstones with cut corners identify military personnel who served in the war but did not die in conflict. The original headstone dimensions were 76 cm. tall, 38 cm. wide and 7.6 cm. thick. This solid shape and the use of marble or granite are essential in maintaining a permanent memorial.


Each headstone is inscribed with the national emblem or regimental badge.
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Milton_Evergreen_RCA Bailey

To honor the award of the Commonwealth’s highest military decoration, the religious denomination (cross, etc.) is replaced with the Victoria Cross emblem.


The rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty is inscribed using standard uppercase lettering without punctuation. A more personal dedication may be chosen by relatives.

Oh for a glimpse of the grave where you’re laid only to lay a flower at your head.

Christian headstones are inscribed with a cross, and Jewish headstones display the Star of David.

Burials of military personnel prior to 1918 are identified with symbols. Artillery, such as cannons or a rifle, on a gravestone usually represents military service.  A flag is often found on veterans’ graves signifying patriotism.
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A soldier on a horse is also representative of a soldier’s grave. If the horse has both front legs in the air, the person died in battle. If only one leg is raised, he died as a result of wounds; and if the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person probably died of natural causes.
horse symbol 2 legs

And when he gets to Heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell:
‘Just another soldier reporting, Sir.
I’ve served my time in Hell.’

Unknown Warrior’s Tomb, Westminster Abbey, London
A few feet inside the main entrance, at the far western end of the nave, is a black marble tombstone permanently surrounded by a border of greenery and poppies. It is the only gravestone in the Abbey that may not be walked upon, and contains the remains of an unidentified soldier of the first world war.

The remains of the unknown soldier were laid to rest in a solemn national ceremony on Armistice Day (November 11), 1920, in a service attended by King George V and his family. The following year, the US government announced that it was awarding its highest military decoration – the Congressional Medal of Honor – to the man whose remains are buried here. That medal may be seen today in a frame hanging on a pillar a little way from the tomb.
England_London_Westminster_Unknown warrior

Engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition, the full text of its inscription reads:
Beneath this stone rests the body
of a British warrior
unknown by name or rank
brought from France to lie among
the most illustrious of the land
and buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
his ministers of state
the chiefs of his forces
and a vast concourse of the nation.
Thus are commemorated the many
multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
for King and country
for loved ones home and Empire
for the sacred cause of justice and
the freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings
because he
had done good toward God and
His house