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By the Way: Stones that tell our history


Tammy Schane of Doylestown says, “You can tell what a community was like when you visit a cemetery.”

Tammy recalls when she was a child and accompanied her grandfather on a visit to the family plot, he would say to her. “Remember your ancestors. This is who you are.”

She wasn’t frightened; she was fascinated. It made a big impression on her and after earning a certificate in historic preservation from Bucks County Community College, she conducts cemetery tours and presents programs she calls “Engraved,” exploring the meaning behind 19th-century tombstone symbols. Most of the tombstones were hand-carved and some, she said are true works of art, breathing life into stone.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about historical places and the people who frequented them in both the Delaware and Lehigh valleys and I’ve spent hours walking around old cemeteries. They’re fascinating and not at all creepy – except, I expect, maybe at night when I tend not to go there.

For me, and, of course, for Tammy, tombstones do offer a portrait of the past and indicate the universality of grief. It’s interesting to see how people have had their emotions recorded in stone as a tribute to loved ones.

Tammy led more than 50 people around Easton Cemetery on a sunny Sunday afternoon with light-hearted, often-funny commentary as they toured the plots. Now on the National Register of Historic Place, the cemetery was opened in 1849, and offers a gorgeous park-like setting, a surprise awaiting behind a gigantic stone gate that swallows up a city street.

The imposing cathedral-like gate, built in 1882, has three Gothic arches and four turrets. The grassy, hilly cemetery shaded by ancient trees is typical of those in which the Victorians liked to picnic with the departed. It was such a busy place on Sunday afternoons visitors required tickets to enter, according to Tammy.

When it was built, the cemetery was outside the city limits; now the city embraces its 87 acres, the final resting place for 29,000 souls. Plots are still available.

“Death was more a matter of fact for them,” Tammy said, and also for the people of the 18th century, who decorated their graves with grim death’s heads. “You have to remember with an average life span of 40 then, you were middle-aged at 18,” she said.

Many also were illiterate, so symbols were an important way to communicate their grief. “They liked to think of death as a long sleep from which the departed would awake on Judgment Day, thus, a rooster carved on the stone would symbolize awakening,” Tammy explained.

She said an engraved finger pointing up meant a hope for heaven; a finger pointing down did not mean the opposite, but instead symbolized the hand of God reaching down to the soul; an inverted torch spoke of God’s eternal light, and a sun symbol also represented God the Son.

Symbols often characterized the departed. A broken column, for example, referred to a life cut short. She said, “A weeping willow was a symbol for sorrow or immortality; oak leaves meant longevity and strength; a wheat sheaf, a life well-lived; wreathes and garlands, victory over death; drapery indicated mourning.”

Tammy pointed out how cultural and architectural change affected funerary art. After Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, for example, obelisks suddenly began to appear in Europe and the trend was taken up in cemeteries here.

The grave of George Taylor, Durham Furnace ironmaster and the only Bucks Countian to sign the Declaration of Independence, for example, is marked with a towering obelisk topped with an eagle. It is one of the tallest and simplest in the cemetery. Taylor lived in Durham when he signed that document but later moved to Easton, where he died. His remains were removed from an earlier burial place.

In contrast, the grave of another politician, Andrew Reeder is heavily ornamented with symbols. Appointed by President Franklin Pierce in 1854, he was the first governor of the Kansas Territory. After a huge political fiasco and facing a threatened indictment for treason, he escaped Kansas disguised as a woodcutter and returned to Easton to practice law. His 1864 monument includes a stack of books under a draped cloth.

Toward the end of the 19th century when fraternal organizations were so much a part of American life, their symbols began to appear on gravestones, and many tombstones bear the marks of the Masons and the Odd Fellows .

Tammy noted flowers were thought to have their own language during the Victorian era and they often were engraved on tombstones. The Victorians assigned a meaning to each: a lily meant purity, a rose indicated love. Passion flowers symbolized the crucifixion of Christ and a morning glory meant love and the Resurrection.