Photo and story of Fannie Martensen, courtesy of Crown Hill Cemetery’s own Tom Davis.

Is that Cemetery Cymbal-ism?

A walk through any graveyard will draw the eye and the imagination to the most unique monuments. Many of these memorials would have plenty to reveal about their plot’s occupant —  if only the rocks could talk! Take, for instance, the marker on Fannie Martensen’s (1865-1895) grave. Was she a spinster piano teacher? Big Band leader? A roadie for Frank Sinatra? Was she a world renown glockenspielist? Or, is this merely a cenotaph — a monument erected in memory of a person (or a group) whose remains are elsewhere.

Well, According to the April 6, 1895 Indianapolis Journal, Mrs. Fannie (Wade) Martensen was a singer who met a tragic end. Apparently, in a fit of temporary insanity, she cut her own throat and met her maker about a week later, having never fully recovered consciousness. The cause of death was officially listed as septicemia. She is laid to rest in Crown Hill Cemetery under a stone that celebrates her love of music, rather than her “trebles.” That seems fitting.


Some grave stone symbols are so common, we hardly notice them as we walk by. Some are unique and some are mysterious… Image: Union Chapel Cemetery, Lorentz

Stories in Stones…
In many, but by no means all, older burying grounds the graves are positioned east to west. The earliest settlers wanted their feet pointing toward the east and the head of the coffin toward the west, ready to rise up and face the sunrise, when “the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised” (when Christ would appear and they would be reborn). If the body was positioned between the headstone and the footstone, with the inscriptions facing outward, the footstone might actually be facing east and the decorated face of the headstone facing west.  If the headstone inscription faces east, the body would most commonly be buried to the east of it.  Much depends on the age, terrain and layout of the graveyard.

Early graves were seldom arranged in neat rows.  Settler burials were haphazard and arose from a practical need to quickly dispose of a body for health purposes — particularly during epidemics. Families didn’t own plots. Burial spaces were even sometimes reused.  Generally, the north side of a cemetery was considered less desirable and was often the last part of the grounds to be used. In some cemeteries the north side was set aside for slaves, servants, victims of suicide, and “unknowns.” With the coming of the Rural Cemetery Movement in the 1830s and 40s, however, an entirely new style of burial became popular — in a more organized and park-like setting.

But what of those common shapes and recurring images that are seen on memorial markers? Are there meanings behind them or are they simply pretty pictures? Well, it turns out that most of these designs do hold a symbolic significance, particularly on older stones. For example:

This tall, pointy column is perhaps one of the most common monument styles seen in Victorian era cemeteries.  The Obelisk forms were derived from a period of revival in Egyptian art and associated with ancient greatness, patriotism, and elevated taste. Practically speaking, these memorial stones fit in relatively small spaces, and perhaps most importantly, obelisks were less costly than large and elaborately-sculpted monuments. The form was meant to represent rebirth and the spiritual connections between Heaven and Earth, life and the afterlife.


The obelisk is a common form of grave stone, particularly popular in the Victorian era. Union Chapel Cemetery, Lorentz.

Sea Life:
Fish, clam shells, scallop shells, and other types of shells were considered a symbol of a person’s Christian pilgrimage or journey through life.  In the middle ages, Christians wore a scallop shell to indicate that they were on a pilgrimage.  Placing a shell or a rock on a gravestone during a visit is an ancient custom that is still widely followed and may in fact have several different meanings, depending on the cultural background of the people placing the items.  The idea of crossing over a body of water to the promised land or crossing the River of Styx to the afterlife, the final journey to the “other side” is also part of the symbolism of the shell.


Pebbles left atop a monument in Union Chapel Cemetery. Image credit: Lorentz


Nautical symbols can mean many things… including something as simple as the grave’s occupant was a Pisces.




Image credit: Arlington National Cemetery.

Nautical Motifs:
Carvings of  fish or anchors were typically used to symbolize hope and often served as a symbol for Christ as a “fisher of men.” In seaside areas, the anchor also symbolized seamanship and usually marked the grave of a dedicated sailor or a member of the Navy. Graven ships were often seen on cenotaphs of sailors lost at sea.

Hands are a common motif found on many older gravestones had various meanings, depending on their position and gesture. A hand with an upward pointing finger signified the deceased has traveled upward to Heaven and is an indicator of a just and divine reward. Two clasped hands typically symbolized eternal love (often used for married couples) or a reunion in the afterlife. Hands folded in prayer indicate the deceased was a pious person in life. Hands pointing downward symbolized God pointing to mortality or sudden death.  Handshakes were farewells to earthly existence or declared friendship that would transcend mortality.


Hands clasped in eternal friendship or love, Union Chapel Cemetery. Image credit, Lorentz.


In Indiana cemeteries, Christian symbolism is most common. Union Chapel Cemetery.


Some believe this signifies the hand of God pointing the way to heaven. Some see it as a tribute to a particularly righteous person. Union Chapel Cemetery.


Unbroken columns were meant to symbolize a long life. Union Chapel Cemetery.

Architectural Elements:
Gates or a barred entrances were meant to depict the gates of Heaven — the arrival of the departed into the glorious realm of the divine. A column is usually representative of a man or woman’s life. A broken column depicted a person’s break with life or a young life cut short. The pyramid, fashioned after the colossal ancient Egyptian stone tombs, represented resurrection, eternal life, spiritual power, and enlightenment. Windows were symbolic of the spirit set free.


Images of Childhood:
Lambs, sleeping cherubs, child-like angels or images of children in repose were meant to represent purity and virtue — the innocence of children. These figures typically adorned the graves of infants and young children. (The lamb might also have been used to represent Christ the Redeemer, in the Christian religion.) Conversely, carvings of wheat tended to represent the “divine harvest” (the taking of humanity by God) and also symbolized a long and fruitful life enjoyed by the deceased.


The grave marker of a child. Union Chapel Cemetery. Image credit: Lorentz



Birds, especially in flight, depicted the soaring of the soul to the afterlife. Eagles were typically used to represent a military or American patriotic background. A dove symbolized the Holy Spirit or peace. The pelican represented sacrifice, sometimes acting as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, because of a medieval legend that featured a pelican piercing its own breast to feed its young.


This “log” marker is difficult to read but may denote a member of the Woodsmen. Union Chapel Cemetery.

Log, Stump, Tree:
These symbols mark the graves of Woodmen of the World members, a fraternal group which was founded in 1883.  Woodmen were a progressive lot for their time, advertising themselves as an organization for the “Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, the agnostic and atheist.”  The Woodmen emblem is a sawed-off tree stump, often with a mallet or beetle, an ax, and a wedge. The motto “Dum, Tacet Clamat” (Though Silent He Speaks) sometimes appears near the border.  These emblems are found throughout the United States, but the largest concentration is in the South and Midwest. Broken braches on the tree indicate a life cut short.


An urn to symbolize the soul (and to conveniently hold tribute flowers). Union Chapel Cemetery.

The Urn, Drapes:
More than a vase for funerary flowers, the urn is a symbol for death and release of the soul, stemming from ancient cremation rituals. The urn represented soul’s rebirth in the next realm. Often, an urn is draped with cloth, depicting death — the final partition separating the living world from that of the dead.

Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface, here. There are hundreds of fascinating, quirky, fun and even morbid gravestone symbols. If you simply cannot get enough, might we suggest a highly informative tour through Crown Hill Cemetery? Crown Hill typically holds public tours from June through early October on the second, third, and forth weekends of the month. During Saturday evening tours, visitors can admire the sunset from “the Crown”, Marion County’s highest hill, which offers a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of the city’s skyline. Call ahead (317-920-2644) for actual times and tour themes.


Draped cloth denoting that the interred has gone “beyond the veil.” Union Chapel Cemetery.

The Association for Grave Stone Studies.
Tom Davis, Crown Hill Cemetery
Early American Gravestone Art, by Francis Duval and Ivan Rigby

Tell us in the comment box:
Which is your favorite Indianapolis cemetery?

10 responses to “Friday Favorite: Grave Concerns”

  1. Tom Davis says:

    The best book I’ve ever seen on this subject is Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconagraphy by Douglas Keister. It is a true field guide with lots of photos. He has several other excellent photo books with cemetery themes as well.

    (btw, I loved your treble pun.)

  2. Lisa Lorentz says:

    Thank you Tom! (And thanks for the inspiration!)

  3. Bob Hubbard says:

    My favorite cemetery to visit is Crown Hill. I do most of my Find-A-Grave searches there.

  4. Lyle Mannweiler says:

    But let’s once and for all put an end to the old wive’s tale that seem to have always existed: Riley’s tomb is not the highest point in Marion County. Google registers it at 819 feet above sea level. Travel northwest to the edge of Pike Township and you will find levels almost 100 feet higher. West 88th Street and Lafayette Road measures 902 and if you step over into the Boone-Hamilton area you’ll soar to 925. Tried for years to get the our so-called newspapers to correct this to no avail.

  5. Tom Davis says:

    Lyle, I agree and tell every group I take on tours there. It may have been the highest point in the city in the pre-unigov days but it is not the highest point in Marion Co which is, as you say in the the NW parts of the county.

  6. Tom Davis says:

    Officially, we’ve been told Crown Hill is 842.6 feet above sea level so google is a little off.

  7. D M Shea says:

    Loved the story and photos and want to share some other note worthy grave info –for those of us who treasure cemeteries–we have visited many over the world (Barcelona the most interesting.) But back home in Indiana–here are some to check out:

    Marion IOOF cemetery–In the early days of aviation. a wealthy theater owner in Marion (Billie Connor) lost one of his daughters in her 20’s I think, as she piloted (or was taking aviation lessons?) in an early bi-plane. Hence the eye-catching gravestone–a near life-size propeller.

    The most perplexing: There is a “pauper” grave section for those who died without means or loving gamily–rows and rows of economy sized identical markers. One section with even smaller identical markers is clearly for infants, new borns, still borns–again for those without family or means.

    In a trip through the cemetery perhaps 20 to 30 years ago, leaving a graveside service, several of us who treasure old cemeteries took time after the service to visit family graves, those of friends or just to meander. And, while passing and stopping at the above pauper area, something of an anomaly caught my eye—one of the tiny headstones was engraved “Infant Unknown”–with a date . BUT strangely, it was the sole, the only grave in that infant cemetery which was bountifully decorated with fresh flowers , not just a few but in abundance. Infant unknown? Pauper grounds? Yet clearly someone somewhere was decorating the grave regularly ? Then, my eye caught the date of the death–I cannot remember now the year but the month date was in April–and my former newspaper background kicked in a memory of a small town headline which made headlines across the nation. I don’t remember the name (and even if I did I would not share it to revive the grief and shame of the incident.) Sometime in the 60’s or 70’s a Marion college girl from a prominent family, longtime local judge, was arrested after police found the body of a new born baby wrapped in a sheet. As the story unfolded, the distressed teen was able to hide her pregnancy from her family and all but a trusted friend, the latter helping her with the delivery of what she insisted was a still-born infant. I think it was traced to her through a laundry mark, the girl and her entire family was dragged through weeks, months of headlines and that’s all I remember. But “infant unknown” was remembered by someone.

    Last, in the cemetery on far east Washington St. (cannot remember name) there is a large flat stepping stone engraved “Step softly stranger-a dream lies buried here.”

    And a question: Does anyone remember the half-remembered story of the big mausoleum in Crown Hill with a huge last name emblazoned on top–yet the man whose name it was is NOT entombed there….instead it houses his vengeful widow who refused to bury the man she branded an abuser and womanizer on the grounds “I never knew where he was sleeping around when he was alive.” She occupies his planned monument–he lies buried unknown.

  8. Tom Davis says: Perhaps it is not the one being referred to but the only mausoleum I know cigar Crown Hill that does not hold it’s deceased namesake us that of Caleb Smith. The attached goes into it in more detail than even I care to completely read, but nowhere have I heard that his alleged unfaithfulness was the reason his wife didn’t put him there.

  9. Anonymous says:


  10. Tom Foster says:

    As two other earlier readers stated in 2014 – CROWN HILL is their favorite. Same here for up to this date (4-2-2020). It’s been for me now 51 years as of this month.
    Another mislead statement for many years was C.H.C. claiming Riley’s tomb on top of “Strawberry Hill” was the highest. I found that out in a early evening tour led by one of the several volunteers that do historical walks for Crown Hill. So much to see and admire in so many ways…that’s Crown Hill in Indianapolis… my favorite of all cemeteries I’ve seen in my life, so far.

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