Religious symbolism is literally everywhere, yet because societies' recognition of the symbolic changes with time, many represenations of what was once sacred may now go unrecognized. Sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that, as they become collectively aware of divergences between profane and sacred objects, societies establish their own religious symbols. Such sacred objects possess no intrinsic sacrality but assume this status as the society ascribes to them some transcendent meaning. As time passes, some objects may lose their meaning while others may rise to take their place.The sacred may appear in any cultural medium. Some groups may recognize the sacred in statues or symbolic totems. In Western cultures, the sacred has frequently been represented in stained glass, mosaic icons, or other artistic renderings.
What many people may fail to realize is that one very important and often original form of religious art or iconography may be easily discovered in and around any American community. Many gravestones found in cemeteries exhibit valuable works of religious art that in many cases were crafted by inhabitants of the surrounding region. In every respect, cemeteries are outdoor cultural museums that reflect the transcendent aspirations of the societies that create them. Generally speaking, gravestones that were created by local or regional stone carvers are more useful to the discernment of the religious values of a given culture than are the mass-marketed generic grave markers currently popular throughout the United States. On the other hand, the amateur iconographer should recognize that we have no idea how many nineteenth-century West Virginia families actually took time during their bereavement to select a specific iconographic theme on the stone they purchased from a local carver. It is more plausible that regional carvers then as now specialized in distinctive styles and themes that attracted the attention of family members thus allowing the artisans to reap the greatest capitalistic benefit from their work.
In nineteenth-century West Virginia, as in other states, bereaved families who possessed the energies to give the matter much thought might call upon local stone carvers to capture in their art some common sacred concept. Truly unique religious art themes are rare in West Virginia, but the value of stones is nevertheless enhanced when the local carver gave some unusual spin to even a well-worn symbol. Pointing index fingers, the nearly ubiquitous funerary urns and willow trees, hourglasses and stars were designed to convey some important message about the family or society's understanding of life, death, the profane, and the sacred. Certainly not all West Virginia families of the nineteenth century were so spiritually minded that they routinely pondered the meaning of life and death, yet nominal Protestantism was so pervasive throughout the region that the religious symbolism was embraced as a matter of course when it intersected with a family member's demise. Consequently, the craftsperson understood the importance of etching the meaningful symbols of the sacred into brown sandstone monuments that now abound in the state's graveyards. These unique cultural artifacts should be of great interest to any student of American religion religions willing to take the time to seek them out and decipher what, in many cases, has become forgotten symbolism.
The earliest markers erected in the Appalachian region of North America were generally simple and unrefined. The inscriptions on the earliest stones, if they ever bore any inscriptions at all, have in many instances eroded away entirely. Bearing no epitaph and no discernible art work, such markers--usually products of the Federalist period, 1789-1830--seem to offer little information of historical significance to the researcher. Yet even the crudest markers can reveal a great deal about the regional history of western Virginia before 1820. The majority of early inhabitants were poor farmers, isolated from the larger eastern communities by the formidable Allegheny Highlands. The construction of the Old National Road, stretching from Cumberland to Wheeling, was not completed until 1818, and even then the highway was located too far north to really benefit most settlers of present-day West Virginia. These pioneers, therefore, depended entirely upon their own resourcefulness for the crafting of grave markers. As the counties in western Virginia grew more settled, the white inhabitants sought out the skills of local stone carvers. The artists who best captured in stone the religious sentiments of the bereaved, could expect a greater demand for his skills and a wide distribution for his product.
One very popular symbol displayed on West Virginia markers before 1850 was the funerary urn. Appearing with cloying regularity on nineteenth-century gravestones in all settled areas of North America, the urn was a well-understood symbol of death or the soul's mortality, though it was frequently accompanied by a more hopeful "tree of life" motif that appears in countless styles. The combination of urn and the tree of life presented a sacred message to the family and the society in which they lived: although the individual has perished her remains will provide the seed for new life. Despite the unfortunate affects of the monument's exposure to the elements, the 1836 stone of Christianne Watson located near Morgantown, West Virginia, features a remarkable example of this motif. The "tree of life" growing out of the urn expresses a Western religious understanding of the hope of everlasting life. The outer branches of the tree terminate in a pair of triads indicative of the central significance of the Christian religion's perception of God's triune nature which grants to the deceased eternal life.
The weeping willow, a symbol commonly found in Great Britain during the neoclassical period (1660-1740), was intended solely to represent the grief and sorrow experienced by the survivors of the departed. Willows grace the facade of a huge number of nineteenth-century grave markers in West Virginia and other parts of the country. The Margaret Jane Shepherd stone (1837) in New Martinsville is one of a relatively small number of antebellum grave markers in West Virginia autographed by the stonecutter (William Birey of Elizabethtown, Virginia, now Elizabeth, West Virginia). This otherwise secular symbol actually forms the circular arch at the top of the stone, and transforms an otherwise pensive symbol into a message of hope. Like the church fastigium arch, which represents the portal between the profane and the sacred, between this world and the next, the arch on Margaret Shepherd's marker supersedes the sorrow of death with the promise of eternal life. Moreover, the gravestone's sunrise finials serve as a strong reminder of the Christian's resurrection hope.
It is somewhat ironic that some of the most thoughtful and elegant funerary art work is preserved on the grave markers of children. Infant and childhood mortality rates were notoriously high throughout the United States during the nineteenth century, and the death of a child was a sorrow that few families escaped. Funerary art on many early to mid-nineteenth-century child graves in West Virginia strongly suggests that the Appalachian outlook upon death did not differ significantly from the sentiment expressed in other parts of America at that time. The presence of a dove—an ancient Latin symbol—on a grave marker almost always indicates that the deceased was an infant or young child. The dove on the Samuel Johnson stone (1852) in Fairview Cemetery, Monongalia County, represents the Spirit of God who descends and plucks the young life—here represented by the olive twig—away from the earth and carries it to a more peaceful heavenly rest. This sentimentalized characterization of the tragedy of infant death indicates that, as early as the 1850s, the romantic movement—a nineteenth-century European product—was beginning to have an effect in some of the more accessible portions of Western Virginia.
In contrast to this sentimental approach, earlier stones, such as that of John Vance (1835) in Morgantown, convey a more realistic sense of death's effects on the child's parents. Before the young lily bud (a symbol of purity and potential) depicted on the stone's tympanum has an opportunity to blossom, it breaks away from the plant and falls to the ground.
The appearance of hand-carved portraiture on gravestones is rare anywhere in America after 1800. The Thomas Holland stone (1846) is a delightful exception to this rule. The closed eyes of the figure are indicative of the sculptor's attempt to preserve the image of the child as he appeared at the moment of death. The fluted backdrop which seems to radiate from behind the Holland portrait is suggestive of a sunrise reflecting his Baptist parents' convictions that the child will rise again and one day live in paradise.
The heart, the shelter of the soul and the seat of the affections, symbolizes the triumph of the soul over death. The Christopher Beard marker (1842) at the Old Stone Church in Lewisburg incorporates a unique heart-tree design to convey this sentiment. The hopeful tree of life sign is flanked on either side by coffins which serve as a memento mori, a reminder of the ubiquity of death. The engraved coffin that appears on the backside of the John Spotts marker, located in Lewisburg, also provides an unmistakable reminder of the evanescence of human life.
Religion and regional culture are also discernable in some of West Virginia's more recent gravestone creations. Located in the heart of Appalachia along the McDowell County border with Virginia, the Clyde Booth gravestone offers a marvelous glimpse at culture and faith in the state's southern coal mining region in the twentieth century. Fashioned from a concrete mix and adorned with glass marbles that border the edges and form a Christian cross, the marker was likely created by the hands of a bereaved family member. Although the family's literacy level is obviously low, their sense of loss and their penultimate expectations are no less genuine than that experienced by more urbane families.
These stones represent only a sampling of the rich variety of gravestone art. A vast number of iconographic themes grace the headstones of cemeteries in West Virginia, including seashells and solar images (both resurrection symbols), rosettes, stars and winged heads (usually intended as soul effigies), and flowers of every description. Blossoming flowers can represent the transience of earthly existence as well as the promise of eternal life. Many of these symbols can be found state-wide, marking the stones of literally thousands of graves. Old West Virginia gravestones are, in many respects, works of art. Some are masterpieces, while others are representative of a crude and harsh frontier environment, but every stone has a symbolic message to convey to the modern-day observer. As is the case with funerary art from every region of the country, the uniqueness of West Virginia gravestones lies not so much with the routine dominant themes but with the individual characteristics of the local stone cutters. What makes the stones extraordinary is the artists' variations upon the themes.