Originally created 10/14/02

Cemetery symbolism



Betty Aldridge has walked Summerville Cemetery in the past, wondering what to make of the symbols that mark the aging stones.

The rosebuds. The upside-down torches. The hourglasses.

Historian Carrie Adamson provided the answers Sunday afternoon during a walking tour of the private Augusta cemetery, guiding nine curious visitors through the maze of burial plots, old iron fences and markers.

Mrs. Adamson described the cemetery as a community diary of sorts.

"Cemeteries are places where myths are made and myths are remembered," she told the group. "It's a feeling that's in your heart, that now you're seeing something the way they saw it."

Mrs. Adamson, the president of Augusta Genealogical Society Inc., gives walking tours of three local cemeteries in the spring and fall as part of Augusta State University's continuing education programs.

Summerville Cemetery, at Cumming and Johns roads, dates from about 1820 and was the early burial ground for prominent Augusta families who lived on the Hill. A university brochure describing Sunday's tour of Summerville Cemetery told students to expect the two-hour walk to showcase the changing styles of the past 180 years.

Mrs. Aldridge, who jotted down notes during Sunday's tour, was impressed.

"It was nice to have some information to hang the symbols on," she said after the tour.

Mrs. Aldridge said if she spots a cemetery while driving around with her husband she screams, "Stop the car!"

She likes to look at what is written underneath the name, she said, and at the dates on the old markers. She likes to try and figure out their history: What happened to the people? How many children did they have? How many babies did they lose?

"It gives me some insight into people's lives," she said.

For the nine students Sunday, Mrs. Adamson was a walking history book.

"Doesn't that look like the Washington monument there?" she asked the class, pointing to the tall grave marker for the Honorable Charles J. Jenkins, who died in 1883.

"In the very early days of the country, this became the perfect thing to use for civic people, like the heads of state or a mayor in a community. And you don't very often see them on women's graves.

"But it is an obelisk cut off. And that cutoff is a life cut short. So that is the symbolic meaning of it."

She explained other symbols engraved on cemetery markers.

A sheaf of wheat meant old age. A rose stood for love. An upside-down torch was a universal symbol of death. An hourglass represented immortality.

"The Victorians were ultra-sentimental," Mrs. Adamson said.

As she walked the tour, Anne Reider said she was amazed by the artistry involved in making the markers.

"(Gravestones) are so boring now," she said.

Ms. Reider, who drove from Jackson to attend Sunday's tour, said she learned a lot.

"I've always been interested in graveyards," she said. "I like to see the dates and the history."

The tours continue in the next two weeks at Edgefield Cemetery in Edgefield, S.C., and Magnolia Cemetery in Augusta. The cost is $24, and reservations can be made by calling (706) 737-1636.

UPCOMING WALKS

Carrie Adamson conducts walking tours of local cemeteries in the spring and fall for Augusta State University. For reservations, call (706) 737-1636.

Coming up:

  • Edgefield Cemetery
  • 3-5 p.m. Sunday

    This burial ground, called Willowbrook, is the last resting place of several South Carolina governors. Participants will hear about the history of the town, prosperous in Colonial times. Tour participants will meet at ASU's Galloway Hall at 2 p.m.

  • Magnolia Cemetery
  • 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26

    This walking tour of Augusta's oldest city cemetery leads participants through examples of two centuries of tombstone art and architecture. The graves of Revolutionary and Civil War heroes, poets, authors and political figures can be viewed.

    Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.