Gravestones sometimes say a lot about perspectives on life and death.
I thought about this after visiting the George Washington “Wash” Church cemetery in the Patton Ridge section of far western Wilkes County with Day Church and Vernon Waters for an article on Church family progenitor “Yankee” John Church.
Day and Vernon shared stories about several of the 14-plus people - mostly Churches but a few Greenes and Watsons – buried in this remote but well-tended cemetery near the Watauga and Ashe county lines. Most were born in the mid- to late-1800s and died in the early 1900s.
A high percentage died prematurely, including from hunting and other accidents, disease and one murder-suicide. Like the front pages of this newspaper in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s a reminder of how much more common premature death once was in Wilkes.
Another striking aspect of this cemetery was the depiction of hands – either clasped or with a single finger pointing upwards – on several gravestones.
Hands are a common motif on gravestones of people who died in the last half of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s. This appendage, referenced about 2,000 times in the Bible, is an important symbol of God, life and hope.
Gravestones marking the burial sites of “Wash” Church (1847-1920), Eliza Church (1895-1927) and others in the cemetery inscribed with a single hand with the index finger pointing upward clearly point the way to heaven or say that’s where the departed went. It signifies the reward of the righteous and confirmation of life after death.
A depiction of a handshake on a tombstone signifies welcome to heaven or goodbye to earthly existence, according to the International Association of Cemetery Preservationists.
Do gravestones with two hands clasped in a handshape, but with the index finger on one extended and pointing downward, indicate the opposite of going to heaven? Surely this wasn’t the intent when this was inscribed on Elbert Church’s (1897-1935) gravestone.
Some commentaries online speculate that two clasped hands with a single finger on one pointing downward indicate mortality and God reaching to take the person home, or that the person died unexpectedly.
It represents a couple who hope to be reunited in death if one cuff looks masculine and the other feminine. If it appears to represent a married couple, perhaps the extended index finger on one hand is guiding the other person to heaven.
A right hand emerging from a cloud symbolizes God helping the departed to heaven or a blessing from God.
Other symbolic images on gravestones from the late 1800s and early 1900s found in Wilkes, although not in the “Wash” Church cemetery, include:
• gates ajar, indicating that the departed went to heaven and showing the way there for the living;
• broken chain, symbolizing the broken link in the family’s connection;
• lilies, symbolizing of innocence, mercy, purity and chastity;
• sheaf of wheat, indicating a long and fruitful life;
• anchor, symbolizing hope, steadfastness and eternal life.
Headstones shaped like tree trumps, especially popular from the 1880s to the 1920s, supposedly resulted from the efforts of Joseph Cullen Root of Iowa.
After hearing a preacher describe a congregation as “trees in God’s forest,” Root established the “Woodmen of the World” — a financial services and insurance company that provided financial assistance for burial services. The insurance package included headstones.
Deceased adults were typically depicted with a single, vertical stump and children were often given three stacked, horizontal stumps.
Many of the gravestones with these adornments likely were purchased from catalogues of Montgomery & Ward, Sears & Roebuck and other large retailers.