Throughout the nineteenth century, plant and floral symbolism became a popular addition to gravestones, particularly during the Victorian Era (roughly 1830s to early 1900s). These symbols, often elaborately carved into marble gravestones, had different meanings depending on the time, place, and belief system held by the families of the deceased. Generally, flowers represented life’s beauty and fleeting nature; still, each plant or flower represented certain ideals, feelings, or even a characteristic of those lost. Here are several examples of these fascinating marble metaphors in Old Parish Cemetery:
Fanny Lewis Dean Gay (1806-1891) lot 95
Fanny Dean Gay died on January 19, 1891 at 85 years, 7 months. Carved on her stone are what appear to be cattails. The cattail is a common plant that grows in wetlands. In Christianity, the infant Moses was found floating in a tiny basket among the cattails. Cattails became a metaphor for the servant of the Lord who lives a life of humble obedience.
Samuel E. Pond (1809-1877) and Vina Morse Everett Pond (1806-1877) lot 1
Sheaves of wheat are carved into this double stone marked “Father” and “Mother” that belongs to Samuel E. Pond, one of Norwood’s first selectmen, and his wife, Vina Everett Pond. Wheat sheaves represent immortality, resurrection, and a bountiful life. Some say these appear most often on the graves of people who have lived a full life (at that time around 70 years of age was considered a long life). Since Samuel was 68 and Vina was 70, that may be the case in this instance.
Samuel E. Pond, Jr. (1839-1889) lot 1
Also in lot #1 is the gravestone of Samuel Elliott Pond, Jr., known as Elliott, the son of Samuel and Vina. Pond died on October 28, 1889, of pneumonia. He had been a carpenter all his life. His grave is adorned with ferns, most often a reference to the humbleness and sincerity of the deceased.
Caroline E. Rhodes (1831-1880) lot 62
The gravestone of Caroline E. Rhodes stands in the same lot as her parents’ stone. They were Eliphalet and Sally Day Rhodes. Caroline, also known as Carrie, died on December 13, 1880 of a cancerous tumor. She was 49 and single. At the time of her death, she was living with her brother, who was a merchant in Medfield, and his family. On her gravestone are carved, not ferns, but acanthus leaves, a symbol of immortality, resurrection, and the garden of heaven. It is also known as a symbol of mourning, perhaps an indication that Carrie was a much-loved sister.
Enoch Talbot (1796-1862) lot 105
Talbot’s stone is adorned by two sprigs, one of acorns and oak leaves, the other of ivy. It
is a meaningful combination. Oak leaves were a symbol of patience, endurance and strength while ivy is a symbol of friendship and immortality. The words “The pure in heart shall see God” are engraved under Talbot’s name. Together they perhaps offer a fitting epitaph to a good man.
Andrew Keene (1829-1884) and Julia Keene (1829-1889) lot 110
Andrew Keene, a Civil War veteran, and Julia Winship Messer Keene were married in 1861; it was Julia’s second marriage. Her first husband, George Messer, had died in 1860. The striking headstone belonging to the Keene’s has a number of plant and floral engravings. There is a fern, a calla lily, and a rose. The rose leaves and the small flowers come in threes, a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The calla lily signifies marriage; the rose represents holiness and heavenly perfection. The fern refers to sincerity. It appears that the carving depicts a couple devoted to one another and to their God.
Carrie Engles (1861-1893) lot 28
The daughter of James and Susan Engles, Carrie Engles died in 1893. Her father, James, had been a constable and truant officer for the new town of Norwood. Despite the fact that the family had left Norwood in 1880, after her death of pulmonary disease in 1893, Carrie was returned to Old Parish to be interred with her parents. The graceful floral branch on her stone, the front of which is simply marked “Carrie,” seems to be made up both of thistle, symbolizing earthly sorrows, and acanthus leaves which represent the garden of heaven, perhaps a just reward for her earthly burdens.
The harshness of New England winters is hard on nineteenth century marble. That appears to be the case on many of these gravestones as the floral and plant detail has begun to fade. It is particularly true on the stones of Ida Putnam (1847-1874) who died at 26 and whose stone stands alone in lot 244 on the crest of Old Parish’s highest hill, and Francis Tinker (1816-1896), Norwood’s first historian. His beautiful stone can be found in lot 44 but its stylized design is difficult to decipher.
Each of these memorials has stood in Old Parish’s outdoor museum for over a century. They are particularly poignant reminders of the brevity of life in spring time, when flowers and plants, like those depicted here in stone, are blooming all around us.