Secrets of the Cemetery: Exploring historic symbolism

Published: Oct. 31, 2019 at 5:44 PM EDT
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By: Emma Wheeler | WCTV Eyewitness News

October 31, 2019

VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) -- T'is the season of haunted takes and ghost stories that send shivers down your spine. Sometimes those stories are more real than you may think.

Shortly before dusk, a quiet stillness blankets the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Valdosta. Since 1861, it has been the place where close to 25,000 have been laid to their eternal rest. Nearly 160 years later, their head stones hardly remain silent.

"The person's long gone, there may be no written record of who that person was, but their headstone is still there," said Barbara Clark.

Clark is the Regional Director of the Florida Archaeology Network. She calls historic cemeteries 'outdoor museums.' Each monument and headstone is like a work of art, detailing more than just a name.

"If you read the symbolism and have an understanding of what it means, you can really learn about these people and the community they lived in, their religion, their belief system," Clark said.

All throughout the cemetery are symbols for peace, and 'life after death,' depicting families with deep religious roots.

In Old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, there are headstones for 'Woodmen of the World,' a fraternal organization that still exists today.

One of the most common symbols is a rose, which looks wilted and cut in half. This is known as 'A Life Cut Short,' representing a child, or even a young mother who may have died in child birth.

Clark said many of these symbols stemmed from the Victorian Era.

"Death was very very common. So they created this whole kind of cultural practice surrounding it, pertaining to mourning rituals," Clark said.

Many of these rituals live on today.

Gina Beckman is the Historic Area Supervisor at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture. She said Queen Victoria started many common mourning practices, like wakes, potluck type dinners at wakes where guests bring a dish to share, and wearing black.

Beckman said widows would wear black for a full year after losing their loved one.

"It's important to keep the past in the present. We have field trips here and kids come in and learn every day so we don't lose this knowledge," Beckman said. "There's a lot of really interesting things that we don't need to forget."

Not all Victorian Era practices have stuck around. The headstones across historic cemeteries come in all different shapes and sizes. Clark said families would spend enormous amounts of money because that's how they showed how much that person was loved. Although these headstones are beautiful, they can be difficult to maintain. That's why many cemeteries today are more practical than artistic.

As fascination for these places grows, Clark said so does improper maintenance and vandalism, especially during Halloween, threatening the stories left behind.

"The ghost stories, and kind of that mystery that comes with historic cemeteries, this is where people's loved ones are for eternity, so they're deserving of respect," Clark said.

A place of the dead, but full of memories chiseled in each stone.

Clark said one way to help preserve historic cemeteries is to go visit them and appreciate the artwork, because it can help to deter vandalism and promote the importance of taking care of them.

Ahead of Halloween, the museum held a program dedicated to Victorian Era mourning practices and cemetery symbolism as part of its History After Dark series. Beckman said it's a way to explore these practices and their significance.

Museum staff plan to hold new programs every quarter.

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