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A take-along guide to cemeteries

 A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and IconographyStories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I snatched this book off the shelf as soon as my eye landed on it. It has long surprised me that there was no comprehensive dictionary of the symbols found on gravestones. I know the topic is a complicated one, in that the same symbol can mean different things at different times — or even at the same time in different locations. Richard E. Meyer’s introduction acknowledges these difficulties, while casting headstones themselves as a cipher for the person buried beneath. It’s a wonderful image with which to open the book.

Douglas Keister, author of Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity has become the leading American photographer of gravestones. His work appeared in American Cemetery magazine’s “Tomb of the Month” feature, documenting the resting places of the famous and infamous. Photos included in this book have been recycled from other publications, but it’s nice to have them gathered together in one place.

“A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography” is the truer part of the title. The book’s format (tall and skinny) encourages the reader to take it along to the graveyard, the way you’d take a birding book to the park. However, while the color plates make for lovely viewing, they add to the weight you’ll be toting. In addition, the unfortunate page design doesn’t lend itself to identifying the symbol engraved on the stone before you. Too often, photographs appear at the fold of the page, so you really have to crack the book open to examine them. It makes it difficult to tell a sunflower from a daisy.

Still, there are an immense number of photographs in this book, often three to a page, so there is much on which to feast your eyes. There’s food for thought as well. In the opening section I learned about the significance of tumulus graves and their link to ancient warriors. I wished for a specific citation I could have followed up on, but maybe that’s just me.

The errors in the book — and of course there must be some in a volume of this breadth — are worth mentioning. The caption beside the photo of John Keats’ headstone in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome says simply “Poet.” That much is obvious, since the clearly visible epitaph reads, “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet…Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I’m nervous that Keister didn’t realize he was recording Keats’ grave as he snapped the photo, printed it, chose it for the book. If he missed something so widely known, can he be trusted on the finer points?

As I followed up on that train of thought, I discovered an unraveling string. The lyre adorning Keats’ gravestone isn’t listed in the index, but the entries mentioned are interesting. The main listing differentiates a lyre from a harp as “more playfully designed.” After some beautiful Chinese folktales, the lyre in Western mythology is summarized as “one of Apollo’s attributes.” No mention is made that the lyre is chosen to adorn poets’ graves in specific reference to the Greek god who invented poetry. Often lyres on headstones exhibit one or more broken strings, as in the case of Keats’ stone, to signify that the poet’s voice has been silenced. Seems to me those might be things the casual graveyard wanderer would like to know.

All that aside, this is a lovely little book, stuffed with photos and intriguing tidbits. Consult it to add whimsy to your wanderings, but it’s not the final word.

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This is cross-posted from my cemetery blog at http://cemeterytravel.com. Please stop by and say hello.

Loren Rhoads
editor of Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues