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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Does the Tombstone Hold the Key?
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 7, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Recently I have spent more than my fair share of time touring cemeteries. While I have always tried to visit those in which my ancestors were buried, this new fascination stems from an interest in the tombstones themselves rather than in the names of those on the tombstones. Sometimes we spend so much time seeking the names that we overlook what else a record or resource, in this case the tombstone, can tell.

In addition to being a source of information in our quest for information about our ancestors, I have found that tomsbtones afer often works of art that offer a glimpse into the life of the individual who is gone. Of course if we are always in a hurry, dashing from one record to another, we often miss the chance to get to know the person through their tombstone.

Tombstones are sometimes a window.

Works of Art

When you think about it, many of the tombstones that mark the final resting place of our ancestors are works of art. The carved images practically come to life from the intricacy and detail. Some people visit cemeteries just to see these beautiful statues. Some of these images have been put on the Internet, showing the artistry that has gone into them. Often, you'll find that this imagery has been included for more than just looks. Most of the imagery carries with it religious significance.

Some of the images found on tombstones include

  • Flying angel: rebirth, resurrection
  • Trumpeting angel: resurrection
  • Weeping angel: grief and mourning
  • Crown: the glory of life after death
  • A hand pointing up: pathway to heaven

For more information on tombstone imagery, you can find many articles and sites online that go into more detail

A Window to a Life

Recently as I was looking at tombstones in a cemetery in Los Angeles, I came upon the tombstone of a woman who had died recently, within the last ten years. The thing that caught my eye about her marker was the fact that the LDS (Mormon) Salt Lake City Temple was etched into the marker. This glimpse into her life told me many things about her. She was a Latter-day Saint. She probably did some genealogy. Her genealogy, even if she didn't do it, may have been compiled and available at the Family History Library. All of this, if I was a descendant researching her life, would offer me opportunities and avenues to pursue.

While the imagery of angels and crowns was prevalent in earlier centuries, I have seen a trend in the types of things found on markers of today. Many of them include something person about the person. I have seen motor boats, fishing gear, race cars, and more etched into stones and markers of the last twenty years. I have seen poems and stories about the deceased individual.

One of the best ways to keep these windows is to take pictures. Make it a practice to take along a camera when visiting a cemetery. I know many who are now taking along a digital camera so that they can check the images before leaving the cemetery to make sure that they come out.

Community Involvement

One of the most prevalent additions to tombstones and markers that I have seen is that of fraternal organizations or other similar type groups. Identifying these organizational insignias offers insight into the beliefs of your ancestor, perhaps even identifying his or her religion, and may also offer additional avenues for record searching. While not all fraternal organizations have survived or offer a way to get access to their records, it is worth a try.

The most common fraternal organization is that of the Freemasons. However, others I have seen include the Independent Order of Oddfellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Woodmen (who sometimes have tombstones designed like tree stumps), and the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal organization).

Another insignia that you may find is that of the Grand Army of the Republic. Such an insignia indicates that your ancestor fought for the Union during the Civil War. The United Confederate Veterans was a similar fraternal organization for those who fought for the South.

In Conclusion

Our ancestors did not want to be forgotten, nor did those they left behind wish to forget. The tombstones and markers reflect this enduring remembrance. Whether the images were placed on the markers because the deceased wanted it or because those who remembered her or him wanted to remember those special things about the person, the tombstone is much more than a source for the date of birth or death.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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