ELOQUENT GRAVEYARDS - Part 3 of 5
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
Our journey continues with a brief survey of those cemeteries within a two-mile radius of Ybor City. They are the Oaklawn Cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery, Centro Español Cemetery, L’Unione Italiana Cemetery, and the Memorial Park Cemetery. I chose these graveyards because of their proximity to Ybor City and because they represent the various ethnic groups that lived in the area.
If one scrutinizes the gravestones in chronological order, certain stylistic changes may be observed, such as the early headstones, from the mid to late 1800s; they are simplistically designed and tablet-shaped—usually thin and tall. As time passes, the tablets become thicker and a bit more ornamental. Also, the frequency of gravestones mounted on a base or several bases increases, as does the number of headstones bearing two names. The changes in thickness may represent a greater preoccupation with immortality—thus, the longer-lasting and imposing monuments. Furthermore, the increased frequency of gravestones bearing more than one name signifies that the “…family was taking greater ascendancy over the community in the individual values and loyalties of the times” (Dethlefsen & Jensen, 1977). By the late 1800s, obelisks of various designs and sizes become common.
By the early 1900s, religious symbols are also becoming quite common, and the burial site markers much more artistic. But by the mid-1900s, the heavy ornamentation has dramatically decreased although the gravestones remain relatively large and heavy. The earlier tablet gravestone gives the impression of fragility and finality with their usually simple writing, which was straight and to the point. To illustrate, the following style of the epitaph, from one of the gravestones in the Oaklawn Cemetery, was very common:
June 4, 1878
Also, there is an overall lack of religiosity in the early gravestones, as evidenced by the motifs (or their absence), and the epitaphs. The epitaphs that predominate emphasize the kinship ties, as was mentioned above. Also, gravestones representing more than one individual increased in frequency, which also substantiates the kinship emphasis trend. Prior to that, however, the people were buried side by side, but they generally had individual burial site markers. This earlier tendency was apparently widespread, and “…usually represents only a single individual” (Dethlefsen & Jensen, 1977). It seems that the earlier settlers were more preoccupied with other matters besides death and religion. However, toward the outset of the 1900s, religious symbols become more common as do the headstones bearing more than one name.
To illustrate, the burial site markers commonly used for children are smooth, white, and display a lamb at rest. The lamb is usually interpreted to symbolize “…purity, innocence,” and “…meekness (as well as unwanted sacrifice)” (Cirlot, 1983). Another indication of an increasing preoccupation with religion is perhaps displayed in the growing number of obelisks used as burial markers. Obelisks not only point toward heaven but also symbolizes the rays of the Sun and Light “…as the ‘penetrating spirit’ in consequence to its upright position and the pyramidal point in which it terminates” (Cirlot, 1983).
Thus far, we have learned that the epitaphs provided a statement about the social conditions of the time. For example, the majority of headstones representing a man and a woman usually depict the man’s name on the left-hand side. It was observed that in “…most southern cemeteries, the wife’s name on recent gravestones is usually on the right while in the north the placement of names is quite variable” (Dethlefsen & Jensen, 1977). This may be interpreted as an unconscious statement regarding the position of the man as the head of the family and/or of the “male superiority” myth.
Also, many epitaphs display phrases such as the “children of,” “wife of,” “husband of,” “son of,” or the “daughter of,” which corroborates the beforementioned statement that there was a period of increased emphasis on kinship ties. Another interesting observation regarding epitaphs is that many of them included the places of birth and death, a practice that was quite popular among the immigrants that lived in the area and perhaps an indication that the people still maintained their ties to the old country—to their place of birth.
Next week in Part 4 of 5, we will see how the Cubans, Spaniards, and Italians continued to customize their headstones.
Hand drawings by Enrique A. Cordero - obtained while surveying the monuments found in the cemeteries included in the study.
Cirlot, J. (1983). A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc.
Dethlefsen, E. S., & Jensen, K. (1977). Social Commentary from the Cemetery. Natural History, LXXXVI(6), 32-39.