Sunday, November 1, 2009


stele: also ste·la (stē'lə) pl. steles also ste·lae (-lē) An upright stone marker or slab with an inscribed or sculptured surface, used as a monument or as a
commemorative tablet in the face of a building.

Every year, I like to take at least one lovely autumnal walk through a cemetery. I enjoy the history, as well as all the various forms of funerary art. There is something very compelling, full of human truths, that draws me to these places of solace and beauty.

Tombstones were relatively simple, like the one of my fifth great grandfather, below, who was a captain in the American Revolution, until Queen Victoria, who after the death of her beloved Albert, in1861, went on a veritable mourning frenzy and led the way in making memorialization fashionable. Cemeteries were not only a pleasant respite from the dirty and noisy cities; they also became large scale public art galleries.

The words carved on Captain Robert "Robin" Hanna's stone are these:

He was a brave defender of his country's rights
and lived and died an honest man.
On one of my last visits to my dear grandfather, who passed away two years ago, at the ripe old age of 93, he took me out to some old rural Indiana cemeteries to locate the stones of our ancestors. It was a beautiful October afternoon and I don't know who enjoyed the day more, he or I.

This month, on my walk through the Oak Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Delaware, Ohio, this stone, "Pompey King, died Apr. 8, 1844, aged 100 years", caught my eye. I was curious what information I might find on Pompey, so on my return home, I promptly did a bit of research. I found him listed on the Official
Roster of the Sons of the American Revolution Buried in Ohio. He was married September 23, 1815 to Sally Stonemia in Licking County, Ohio. I wonder what he would think about me blogging about him, some 165 years after his death? I wish I knew the origin of his unique name. What was his secret to longevity?

(for ore info o Pompey King,see addendem at the end of this post)
The image on the stone below is full of symbolism. A winged Death, complete with sickle, much like the one pictured in my header, is accompanied by an angel of grief (sorrow), holding an olive branch (peace), and a broken column (early death).

Listed below are other intriguing symbols often depicted in tombstone art. Ivy or a lamp would be beautifully symbolic. I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd like a gourd or skeleton on my stone. Hmm. Maybe a lovely willow tree would be more appropriate?

Anchor - Steadfast hope
Angel of grief - Sorrow
Arch - Rejoined with partner in Heaven
Birds - The soul
Book - Faith, wisdom
Cherub - Divine wisdom or justice
Column - Noble life
Broken column - Early death
Conch shell - Wisdom
Cross, Anchor and Bible - Trials, victory and reward
Crown - Reward and glory
Dolphin - Salvation, bearer of souls to Heaven
Dove - Purity, love and Holy Spirit
Evergreen - Eternal life
Garland - Victory over death
Gourds - Deliverance from grief
Hands - A relation or partnership
Heart - Devotion
Horseshoe - Protection against evil
Hourglass - Time and its swift flight
Ivy - Faithfulness, memory, and undying friendship
Lamb - Innocence
Lamp - Immortality
Laurel - Victory, fame
Lily - Purity and resurrection
Lion - Strength, resurrection
Mermaid - Dualism of Christ
Oak - Strength
Olive branch - Forgiveness, and peace
Palms - Martyrdom, or victory over death
Peacock - Eternal life
Pillow - Deathbed, eternal sleep
Poppy - Eternal sleep
Rooster - Awakening, courage and vigilance
Shell - Birth and resurrection
Star of David - God
Skeleton - Life's brevity
Snake in a circle - Eternal life
Swallow - Motherhood
Broken sword - Life cut short
Crossed swords - Life lost in battle
Torch - Eternal life if upturned, death if extinguished
Tree trunk - Beauty of life
Triangle - Truth, equality and the trinity
Shattered urn - Old age, mourning if draped
Weeping willow - Mourning, grief

This just in...After Roy mentioned in his comment that he thought Pompey King might have been a slave, since they were often named classical names as such, I did a bit more research, and found that Pompey
King was indeed an African American, former slave and pioneer! Serving in the American Revolution was mostly likely his ticket to freedom. He was also listed a member of the First Presbyterian Church. First buried in the Old Burial Ground, his body was later moved to the Oak Grove Cemetery, in Delaware, Ohio. For more Ohio historical info from the Ohio Digital Resource Commons at Ohio Wesleyan University, visit [HERE].

Isn't it curious, that Pompey King and my Capt. Hanna were born the same year and both served our country in the revolution. I wonder if they possibly could have known each other?

Thanks, Roy. This aspect of the blogging community is one of the things I like best. ~x


  1. Fascinating post, Willow! Walking through some of these old cemeteries is like walking through an art gallery. It's so true! One year we went on a costumed tour where they pointed out all the society symbols on the tombs, like Mason symbols. Prestige even in death!

  2. Thanks for the lesson in the symbolism of grave markings. I'd like to pick the bird, book, evergreen and crown for my headstone. The crown would appear over the bird. Both symbols would rest upon a evergreen branch on the pages of an open book. The soul is crowned with reward and glory in eternal life because of a life of faith in the redeemer.

  3. I love cemeteries too, very much. I especially love visiting the Jewish cemetery where my grandparents are buried, deep in the heart of Brooklyn. It's remained untrammelled as the neighborhood around it has fallen into disrepair.

    This is a lovely post.

  4. happy halloween willow! facinating stuff about the imagery on the tombstones. will take the boys on a walk through the one at my parents house today...and not pay attention to what the stones are saying outside their words!

  5. I always try to visit a local cemetery where ever we vacation or travel. I love cemeteries! My favorites so far are the cemeteries around the city of Boston. They have many old, beautiful headstones but the best part is so many of them have humorous inscriptions.

  6. Happy Halloween dear friend!You know I'm loving this post!!What great information on the meanings of grave marker carvings! xoxo

  7. Wonderful post, Willow! I'm a fan of old cemeteries too -- we're lucky enough to have one just adjacent to one of our pastures.

    And meaning thanks for the list of funerary symbols! I was aware of some of the more common ones but gourds? Who knew?

    Pompey was a Roman general and adversary of Julius Caesar. I seem to remember it being used as a slave name. ((Remember from reading -- I'm not THAT old)

  8. I love old cemeteries too. Not the modern ones though which seem to be so understated, slick and almost not there, as if in modern times we don't want to remember or honor. How cool that you can find the grave of a 5th great grandfather. My family also goes way back but moved west. I have no idea where my greats are buried.

    Stele have fascinated me just about all my life, ever since I learned about ancient Egypt in middle school. Soon, I am going to do a series of pate de verre pieces using this form.

  9. Dear Willow,
    I love walking in the two churchyard cemeteries here in Shelford. There was such a hue and cry from the village when some church members wanted to build a creche onto the churchland, removing some of the oldest gravestones.
    I have never wanted to be buried. Mum's Zoroastrian, and like the Tibetans, they believe in having the body picked clean by vultures so the circle of life continues.
    However, these fascinating headstone symbols and the possibility of someone like you 'finding' me and writing about me centuries later is quite alluring :)

  10. Ahhhhh! Right up my alley! Of course you realize that walking around in cemeteries is second only to walking along a trail through the woods for me. There's some very fine stone-carving in yours.

    When I saw the name Pompey I was inclined to think he might have been a slave - male slaves were often given classical names, for reasons I've never really figured out. Usually the ones with classical names were house servants rather than fieldhands. It's very interesting indeed that this was a free white citizen.

    As for that list of carved symbols... We have a lot of anchors on gravestones and monuments here in Newport, but they have nothing to do with steadfast hope (although the anchor on our state flag does; Rhode Island's motto is "Hope"); we were one of the colonial era's major Atlantic ports, plus a major naval base until 1973, so most of those anchors signify the deceased was a sailor of some sort, whether commercial or military.

    Definitely a cool post!

  11. What an interesting post, Willow! Thanks for yet another lesson. I learn so much here.

  12. Roy, I don't know for sure, that Pompey King was a white man. In the Revolutionary War, blacks could earn their freedom by serving for at least one year. Now, I'm really curious. Gotta go do a bit more poking around...

  13. Wonderful post and pictures about cemeteries. Willow. I think I'll put my cemetery poem on my blog today. I, too, find old cemteries so fascinating. When I could get around more easily, sans walker, and in the days before interstates zipped us past nice old towns, I would often stop when I saw little church yards with their residents. It was fascinating.

    Thanks for qll the information about the symbols.

  14. I love the list of symbolism and what they mean. Some are really beautiful and fitting. I was disappointed that there wasn't a stool pidgeon on there! (hee!) Or a symbol for a peacemaker.

    Love the picture of GP. Wonderful post, Willow! :)

  15. ROY!! I just found that Pompey King was an African American, former slave and pioneer. He was also a member of the First Presbyterian Church. He was buried in the Old Burial Ground, and later moved to the Oak Grove Cemetery. Wow. I must add this as a post script to this post. Thanks for spurring me on to more research!

  16. I've never heard that term before. Very cool post Willow.

  17. Lovely post, and I'm certain that today all of those dead you mentioned are Grateful for being sought out...
    Will never have a Stele..I'll just be blowin' in the wind!

  18. Betsy, the olive branch symbolizes peace, and I think the strength of the oak would also be a good one for you!

  19. extremely interesting post! enjoyed it very much :)

  20. Asyou know I enjoy cemeteries too, not so much for my own ancestors as the beauty of the stones, and usually in the fall, the trees are seemingly more brilliant.

    I still have to make an album on this year's unplanned visit to Maple Park Cemetery in Springfield MO . There are some earlier posts with a few pictures.

    Love the information provided about symbolism, etc.

  21. What an interesting and informative post. I was touched by your photo of your grandfather bending over a tombstone. And the info arising about Pompey King - so interesting . . . Simply amazing the access to information we have now.

    Love your new header btw. (Great bottoms!)

  22. Hello Willow,

    Lots of interesting info here. Glad you were able to discover a little more a bout Pompey. Certainly a classical name and a fighter too, which is appropriate in several respects.

  23. When Linda and I were deeply involved in researching our family histories, a couple of years ago, we spent a great deal of time in cemeteries around the world. Invariably they were attractive and very peaceful places

    The oddest tombstone we found was for the Alive family whose listing on the stone made it seem they were all buried alive.

    Hopefully they weren't, although it would have made a great Halloween story.

  24. Sakes alive, Barry! ((giggles))

  25. I thought I was going to make a serious comment here, until I read Barry's comment. ROTFL!

    Ahem. Seriously, though...Your post reminded me of walking through English churches, reading the epitaphs on the walls and floors. Some of the older ones included very detailed biographies -- a researcher's dream.

  26. Wonderful and informative post! I like cemeteries too! I don't know the history but there is a city outside of San Francisco, Colma that is almost all cemeteries...rows and rows. Some cemeteries for specific religions...rows and rows.

  27. History, symbolism, customs and ancestry all come together and are revealed in blogosphere. This was fun, as usual at Willow Manor.

  28. Fabulous post! By blogging about Pompey and the wonderful Captain Hanna, you are honoring the ancestors which is just the perfect thing to do on Halloween! I salute you.

    Beautiful images. I love cemetaries, too.

    Love the list of symbols and their meanings. Very cool! You are so good, Willow! You really really are.

  29. When stationed in Germany many years ago I visited some cemeteries. There was obvious pride and care for the grave sites, and often provision of carved benches and such to accommodate visitors. I don't know if the symbolism in Germany is the same as those you listed. It was long ago.

    I wrote a short story about a cemetery.

    Just in case anyone is interested. ; )

  30. I love them too and this was a great fascinating post Willow!Enjoy your weekend!:)

  31. Thank you for this truly interesting and informative post, Willow (that sounds dry, but it is sincere). Especially liked the symbolism behind the figures--'mermaid' in particular; who knew?

    And I am glad you had that day with your grandfather.

  32. Fascinating post. I've been reading about stele a lot lately, since I am preparing to travel to Egypt in two weeks and will be visiting some of the oldest graves in the world.

  33. Thank you for sharing Willow, truly beautiful.

  34. Thank you SO much for the list of images and their meanings! I copied it to my hard drive for future reference.

    I love cemetery art. Cemeteries are wonderful places to walk. When I lived in London, I used to visit some. It was sobering to see stones that were dated back several hundred years.

    Pompey King! Thanks for that information as well!

  35. I enjoyed the post Willow. I'm inspired by cemeteries too - I've always found them to be more comforting than creepy. A reminder of the world's rhythms and continuity, I suppose.

    Thanks for the list of symbols - I love to ponder and play with symbols. These will inspire me for days.

  36. you always write such interesting facts. I too love graveyards, they do seem like a respite from the busy world.

  37. When I was a little girl, I used to love strolling through cemeteries and reading the tombstones. I thought, these were once living, breathing people, who strolled the earth and lived their lives.

    A few years ago I visited my husband's grave and placed flowers on the headstone. The flowers flew back up into the air again. Other people there saw it as well.

    It makes one wonder...

  38. ps adore Jane Campian so will look for this movie

  39. My daughter read a series of books about "gifted" individuals who in combat supernatural evils. The characters each had his/her own "steles" which was used to draw tattoos of safety on their bodies--each arrangement called for protection of a specific angel. Interesting how the author shaped the idea to fit her stories.

    I like the insight from your cemetary visit. :)

  40. Yes, I Too Love Cemeteries.You Can Tell So Much About A Culture By The Way It Builds It's Burial Grounds.Thank You for Sharing Your Ancestry Here.

  41. Loved all the history of the symbols! Utterly fascinating.
    I was in Philly on Wed and thought of your daughter
    I went on the BOLT BUS!

  42. Wow, what an interesting post!
    I love the symbolic meanings of the headstone carvings; I love their primitive look, as well. Walking thru an old cemetery is such a revealing glimpse into the lives, and often early deaths, of our forbears. Touching, interesting, fascinating. Thanks!
    And . . . Happy Halloween!

  43. I was going to say "Fascinating", Willow, but I see the first poster beat me too it. No doubt there are others that followed.

    As redundant as it may sound, this was a fascinating post. I, too, love to take in a cemetery or two, especially this time of year.

    Hope you have a Happy Halloween. We were invited to several parties this evening but I am locked in my house with the lights off. Over the past week, I have shot so many Halloween photographs, including Halloween festivals, for the newspaper, if I see another costume I may go postal.

  44. I too love the quiet interesting feeling of solace that comes with a visit to a graveyard. I like to visit the past and contemplate the many stories that must be contained within these graves and the folk who stood around mourning them. So many tales of joy and pain. I live in a tiny village with less than 250 persons and our beauty in the centre, is the tiny old church that rings it's bell on the hour how comforting is this sense of belonging. The graveyard which incidently we walk through to get to the village pub is packed. How I hope there will be room left when my time comes. I did enjoy this post. Happy Halloween to you.

  45. Fascinating stuff, Willow! I am so curious about Pompey. He was indeed a anomoly to live that long, and that much (slave to free man), in his day. Wow.

  46. Wonderful post. I really enjoy the architecture of a cemetery. I am not sure what it is really that draws me in...they always seem so beautiful and peaceful. Here in appalachia I have rarely seen any of the symbols that you have researched, but I find that fascinating. Loved learning about Pompey King.

  47. Interesting post, Willow.

    I want giraffe markings on my tombstone, and the inscription 'Raph lived life to the full and was not afraid to stick his neck out for his dreams!'

  48. Thanks for the history lesson. Wonderful photos, especially that of Pompey's tombstone, and the last photo.

  49. Wonderful post and PHOTOS! I enjoy a leisurely walk through the cemetery too. We have a cemetery on a hill about half mile from The Glen and the trees are AMAZING there this time of the year! I wouldn't mind setting up my lawn chair and reading in that wonderful place if people wouldn't think I was a KOOK!

  50. A beautiful, meaningful post, Willow.

  51. A name is just a name,
    only when you look behind it,
    does it reveals its true meaning.

  52. Fascinating - and from several comments, clearly productive - stuff! In these artefacts are to be found the indissoluble links with the Old Country.

  53. Whoever wants to exchange links with my blog, let me know!

  54. An absolute gem of a post. I loved how you wove your family history, funerary culture and art together. And the photos are equally stunning. I, too, used to love going to the Havana cemetery every now and then. I found it absorbing and intriguing. I always ended up wondering about the people buried underneath, the kind of lives they had lived, the type of people they were.

    Thanks for another smashing post.

    Greetings from London.

  55. What an interesting post, willow. One of the things I like about old gravestones is the fantastic script that some of them are in. Yours are no exception. Is family history a big thing in US as it is over here. Often churchyards are the best places to find ones ancestors.

  56. such a nice post, willow! i love the idea of researching someone after seeing their headstone. i find my cemetery wanderings to be peaceful and inspirational. a perfect spot to be at one with history and so much art!

  57. Great post. I love cemeteries as well. My favorite has to be Pere LaChaise in Paris - it's where everyone is buried from Moliere to Jim Morrison.

  58. I know three people who have died in the past two weeks, and two of them were cremated. Gravestones are like letters in a way: for the past few centuries we have used them to learn something about a life. But in a such short span of time of we are going to lose these markers.

    Like the language of flowers, the language of symbolic grave markers will have only a few interpreters! Always learning something new (or old) here, Willow. Fascinating.

  59. How appropriate for Halloween and All Soul's Day! There is probably a book in Pompey's life...maybe one has already been written....Love the list of symbols and their meanings...I must get me to a graveyard!

    Wonderful pics too!

  60. Wow, Willow -- this is really fascinating. I never realized, though I should have, all the symbolism on grave markers. Wonderful educational post!

    In Minneapolis, there's an extraordinary place called Lakewood Cemetery where Humbert Humphrey is buried. It's spread across rolling hills, has ponds, and is set between 2 beautiful urban lakes. In all my years here (22!) I've never paid a visit and it's less than 2 miles from here.

    I'm going to print out your post and pay visit! I'll bring my camera with me and link back your blog when I post about the experience.

    Thanks for illuminating post.

  61. Willow, I really enjoyed reading this post along with all the comments. I too immediately thought of Pompey as a slave name. Over the years of teaching Julius Caesar, I have had more than one student identify names of grandparents and other relatives with the names in that play: Calpurnia, Portia, Brutus, Cassius,etc. I wonder if there might also be a Shakespearean connection? Thanks also for doing the research!
    The historic cemetery in our town is just a block from my home. I have served as a tour guide for the annual Lantern Tour, and I have learned so much about the individuals and families there. One corner was set aside for slaves, and another for a large group of Confederate soldiers from Texas who died in the infirmary here before they could get home. No wonder my older son took his degree in history. As a child, he spent hours recording names and mapping locations of all the CSA gravestones there. It is a wonderous place for an autumn afternoon walk as well! Great effort here....thanks!

  62. Great post Willow - I especially enjoyed the translations of the headstone symbols. I have been taking images of the headstones of my relatives for our genealogy records. If I were two people I would spend a lot more time on genealogy, as I know you do. Fascinating stuff.

  63. MOTH & I enjoy the occasional jaunt around a cemetery too Willow. We have a favourite in Tasmania of a 16 year old girl killed when thrown by a horse in 1879. Her wonderful tombstone was donated many years later by 'All her young friends who miss her beauty & steadfastness each day.'
    Millie ^_^

  64. Isn't that amazing what we can learn from our readers? Love this extra tidbit on top of a fascinating blog post already anyway. Thanks for the lovely walk!

  65. Interesting, Willow--I was in New Orleans for a few days,last week, and I went through the Lafayette cemetery there. I'd never been to New Orleans before, but what a fabulous city--and I always wanted to go through one of those cemeteries. You'd have loved it, Willow--I may have to try to post on it some (if I get a chance at some point!! )

  66. I love walking through cemeteries. They are a favorite writing spot. I love the history, the feel of being close to another time. When I lived in Savannah, GA I was surrounded by amazing cemeteries and I miss them, especially this time of year.

  67. I too am fascinated by cemeteries and have walked many.

    I have read tombstones, wondered about the people behind the names, and I have even researched many of them. Always fascinated. Ever surprised.

    Pompey King's story is one of the many I will alwaus remember. There are so many out there to discover :)

  68. I had never really thought about the symbolism in the many re-occurring themes I have witnessed in cemeteries, especially not while in seminary. Hadn't had to think about it hear or their, in fact I probably hadn't had to think about it anywhere.

    that's probably one of the main reasons I noticed the red rhoddie leaf more than the actual topic of your post. Which, by the way, I did like.


Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)