Tombstone Styles & Symbolism

The term “grave marker” is pretty straightforward: it refers to an above-ground item or monument that indicates where a person is buried. The type of marker that a person plans to have marking his or her grave or that a family selects after a person has died can depend on many different things: financial resources, aesthetic preference, culture, religion, geographic location-just to name a few. I’m going to share some of the types of grave markers that I’ve encountered in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

This table tomb, or pedestal tomb, was in Raleigh, NC’s City Cemetery. This kind of marker was popular in England and in our country’s southeastern states.

Table tomb

Next to this grave was another table marker, which resembles a box marker but what differentiates the two is that a table marker can stand if one of the sides is removed. As you can see, part of this marker is missing on one side.


Raleigh-City Cemetery
A tablet marker is a slab of stone, metal, or wood that stands upright, either with or without a base. This example of a thin stone tablet has a gothic arch.


Mt. View, Danville, VA


Markers made to look like rustic boulders or field stones became popular in the mid-1900s. This is the back of one such monument. The front of the boulder on the left is more textured, but I neglected to photograph it.
Highland Burial Park, Danville, VA


Ledgers are very thin slabs of stone that sit very low to the ground, without a headstone or footstone. These ledgers are in All Saints Episcopal Church’s cemetery in Pawleys Island, SC.
This desk marker is in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery. It has a slanted top and features a scroll on the top of the desk part. This particular desk top sits on a pedastal, but often they are found without the pedestal, just sitting on the ground.


All Saints, SC



Flower box markers are common for burials during the Victorian Era. In those days, graveyards were treated more as parks, where families gathered for picnics or to spend time at the gravesite, perhaps tending to the flowers that had been planted in the flower box piece of the marker. In addition to a headstone, flower boxes have a curb that sits a few inches above the ground with a stone bed several inches below. This is where the dirt is filled in to create the “box.”    Children’s flower box markers are often called cradles. The photo on the right was taken in Greensboro’s old First Presbyterian Church cemetery and shows the marker without dirt. These are often called bedstead markers because they resemble the headboard, footboard, and frame of a bed.
Pedestal marker contain a wide variety of shapes and architectural styles, including obelisks. An obelisk has four sides and the tops can be vaulted, unadorned, or have decorative items at the top point such as urns, lamps, or drapes. This vaulted obelisk is in Danville’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
This photo from Raleigh’s City Cemetery contains several pedestal markers.

Here’s a brick oven style grave from Danville’s Grove Street Cemetery. I’m not sure if the body is actually inside the bricks or underground. Many times this type of grave is called a “false crypt.”


This marker is from Danville’s Schoolfield Cemetery and has a double tympanum. Often these types of headstones, sometimes called “twin markers” are found on the graves of married couples or siblings.

I have only seen one tent grave; this one was in Raleigh’s City Cemetery. This style was probably introduced as a means to keep cattle or other animals from walking on the grave or to help shield the grave from the elements.


Open book markers are a nod to the Bible. They were frequently made of marble and used to mark the grave of a husband and wife.




*This entry was originally posted in December 2012.


Elizabeth Edwards (1949-2010)

When I visited Wade Edwards’ monument at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery in 2013 I noted that his mother Elizabeth’s grave wasn’t marked with the exception of a small plaque at the foot.

I was pleasantly surprised in 2015 when I returned to find a beautiful marble sculpture depicting doves flying upwards from a pair of outstretched hands. The piece was painstakingly chiseled by Robert Mihaley, the same artist who created the marker for Elizabeth’s son years before.


Continue reading “Elizabeth Edwards (1949-2010)”

The Body of Captain Ward Comes Ashore

The Minneapolis Journal, 23 Feb. 1901

It was the inscription on Capt. William Charles Ward’s simple grave marker at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery that caught my attention:

Went Down With His Ship
City Of Rio De Janeiro
San Francisco Bay

Continue reading “The Body of Captain Ward Comes Ashore”

Sarah J. Palmer – "Giving Birth to her First Born Babe"

The Dead Bell

The lovely and much loved wife of 
a youthful but sincere Christian
MARCH A.D. 1855:
giving birth to her first born babe.

Sarah Palmer’s marble headstone (set in a granite ledger)  rests on the grounds of Raleigh’s City Cemetery, split through the area which lists the day of her death, making it impossible to read with accuracy. The damage could have been due to weathering through age or the tornadoes that hit the cemetery in 2011. The headstone is flanked by volutes (the scrolls) and features two doves and an urn.

I was unable to find specific information on Sarah or her husband Charles Palmer except for one source that suggests her maiden name was Williams and…

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February At Oakwood

Recently I took advantage of an unseasonably warm day to return to Raleigh, North Carolina’s Oakwood Cemetery. Because I have so many photos of graves that I haven’t researched or posted yet, I concentrated more on landscape shots with a few exceptions.

This was the first time I had the opportunity of seeing Elizabeth Edwards’ 8 foot tall white marble grave marker, which features a pair of hands underneath 27 flying doves. I wrote about her son Wade’s impressive marker some time ago.

John Dolson was a Minnesota Civil War soldier who died in a federal hospital and mistakenly buried as a Confederate soldier after officials mistakenly recorded his name and other demographic information. Decades later his true identity was revealed but he remains a Union soldier buried amongst his battlefield enemies.

There are plenty of other fascinating micro-biographies to be written about those interred at Oakwood, but sometimes it’s nice just to take a stroll and enjoy the peace and quiet.

Continue reading “February At Oakwood”

Pop Sylvester of the Greater Sheesley Shows

I took this photo of Henry H. Sylvester’s grave marker near the Babyland section of Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh well over a year ago. Obviously what interested me the most was the inscription, “Member of Sheesley Shows.” I thought I’d wandered into another Showmen’s Rest, but this was the only marker in the area that suggested a circus professional’s grave. My usual research yielded nothing about Henry’s life and very little helpful information on the Sheesley Shows (a traveling carnival outfit) so I put his story on hold. Often details of peoples’ lives (or deaths) don’t emerge initially. I don’t know if this delay in discovery is due to luck, database updates, or mysterious keyword algorithms. I fancy the notion that perhaps a narrative reveals itself only when it’s ready to be shared, but then again I’m a dreamer.

In May I  found Henry’s death certificate. This was a extremely helpful because it contained important demographic information such as marital status, his occupation, and the cause of death. Henry was born in New York in 1837 and died on October 17, 1923 at Rex Hospital of chronic myocarditis He was a widower, aged 86, and his occupation was “advertising agent.” The informant on the certificate was J.M. Sheasley (John M. Sheesley-the owner of the carnival), which suggests that Henry didn’t have any relatives or if he did, there was some other reason why Sheesley’s name was on the document. I looked for anything indicating that Henry had ever been married but was unsuccessful. The one death notice I came across mentioned nothing about his possible widower status, so either I missed something or there was a mistake on the death certificate.

There are still plenty of gaps in Henry’s biography, such as when and how he landed in the circus business. In addition to working for the Greater Sheesley Shows, “Pop” Sylvester also spent time with Sun Bros. World Shows, Frank A. Robbin’s Circus, and other carnival outfits, scouting locations and hanging circus banners and bills. It may have also been his duty to arrive days in advance of the rest of the circus to drum up interest in the show. Such a person would’ve possessed a dynamic, outgoing personality and exceptional persuasion skills.

New York Clipper, 26 Oct. 1923

Images of the Sheesley Shows from 1916 (when Henry joined the carnival) are up at Sideshow World, which gives you an idea of some of the sights and people he might have encountered in his daily life if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Henry apparently remained active in the circus business up until his death and because he died during the North Carolina State Fair, his fellow circus brethren were in town and able to attend his funeral.

1906 Sun Bros. ad
1908 Frank A. Robbins Circus ad

Additional Sources:

Dr. Reuben Knox: "Accidentally Drowned & Lost in the Bay"

Yesterday’s visit to Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina was a short, but interesting one. My friend suggested that we visit a cemetery, so she and her daughter were exposed to a whirlwind version of The Dead Bell experience. During the two hours on the grounds I didn’t take very many photographs but I happened upon a very interesting inscription on the side of a cross-topped pedestal marker.

In Memory of 
Dr. Reuben Knox
Born Aug. 10, 1801
Accidentally drowned and lost
in the bay of San Francisco, CA
May 28, 1851
‘The beloved Physician‘”
When I took the picture I was so excited about the epitaph that I didn’t see the “Also” above the name and didn’t look around the other sides of the monument to see if there were additional names inscribed. According to Oakwood’s burial database, there are 11 people with the surname “Knox” buried in the Battle section, Division D, Plot 2. Reuben’s name is among them even though the marker suggests that his body was never found. It’s not uncommon for someone to be memorialized in the family burial plot in cases where there were no remains to bury.
The biographical information on Reuben Knox’s Find a Grave memorial page is almost verbatim to what I found on Ancestry, but keep in mind the sketch on Find a Grave doesn’t list sources. (The same is true of the user-submitted biography on Ancestry.)
If those accounts are true, Reuben was born Massachusetts and moved to Kinston, North Carolina as a young adult. He married Olivia Kilpatrick in 1829 and the couple had five sons before Olivia’s death in 1839. By the time Reuben married widow Eliza Washington Grist in 1840, only three of his children by his first wife were alive. Eliza b from her brought one child to the marriage from her first husband and in 1842 Eliza and Reuben’s first son was born. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri and by 1849, three additional children were born. (Reuben Jr. only lived from 1844-1845.) There Dr. Knox practiced medicine and engaged in various business ventures. The cholera epidemic of 1849 may have overwhelmed the doctor to the point that he felt that he needed to head West in order to better provide financially for the family.
The plan was for Reuben, two of his sons, a nephew, and several slaves to set up a business and homestead in California while Eliza and the younger children stayed with relatives in the East. Reuben arrived in California in September 1850 and as planned, opened a mercantile.
Around 7:30 p.m. on May 28, 1851 Reuben and his crew sailed the San Francisco Bay in a boat weighted down with two to three tons of equipment. The other people on board were James Graham, Mr. C. Wheeler, a Mr. Davis, John Allen, and “an Indian boy.” The destination was Dr. Knox’s ranch settlement on San Pablo Bay but Mother Nature had another plan for these travelers. High winds and treacherous waves caused the boat to take on water and sink. Even though the men were strong swimmers, they weren’t all able to overcome or outsmart the power of the turbulent bay. Five of those on board drowned and to my knowledge their bodies were never pulled from the shared watery grave. Only Mr. Wheeler escaped death with the aid of the vessel’s oars.
Daily Alta California 2 June 1851

Wade Edwards’ Surrogate Mourner

This 10 ft. tall white marble monument marking the grave of Wade Edwards in Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery is one of the most breathtaking examples of a surrogate mourner that I’ve ever witnessed. (Angels and other figures which mark graves with no likeness to the person buried there are referred to as surrogate mourners, because they continue to mourn the dead in the absence of loved ones.) After Wade’s untimely death from an automobile accident in 1996 his parents (politician John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards) commissioned artist Robert Mihaly to create the impressive statue, which displays an angel cradling Wade’s face. 

Elizabeth Edwards sat on this engraved bench for several years following Wade’s death, leaving flowers and reading to his grave. Nearby, a small plaque  reads, “When Flowers Bloom The Angels Sing.”

When Elizabeth Edwards died in 2010 she was interred next to her son at Oakwood. Her grave is currently marked by a plaque at the foot of the grave inscribed with lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” While researching Wade’s statue I read that there could be a larger piece in the works for Elizabeth’s grave, also sculpted by Mihaly.

Cause of Death: Exhaustion from Dementia Praecox

What originally caught my attention about Jesse Johnson’s tombstone at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery was that he died on his 34th birthday in 1929. If you look closely, his death certificate reports his year of birth as 1897, but because census and draft cards also report his birth as being in 1895 I believe the tombstone to be correct.

Jesse’s parents were Seth A. Johnson, a farm laborer, and Helen Price Johnson. In 1900, Jesse and his parents lived in a rented home in Clayton, North Carolina, just outside of Raleigh. Jesse was an only child although according to the census, Helen had given birth twice. (I couldn’t find any information on the deceased/stillborn child.)

 Jesse’s draft card from 1917-1918, which was difficult to read, tells us that when he was 21 he worked at the Raleigh Cotton Mills Company. (In 1996 the former textile mill went condo.)

Jesse had one sister, he was described as “tall,” and either had black hair and brown eyes or brown hair and black eyes. I looked at other draft cards from the same county to see if I could sort that detail out, but they were all in the same barely legible condition.

The next piece of information about Jesse is his death certificate issued in October 1929.  His cause of death was listed as “Exhaustion from course of Dementia Praecox” and he died at the State Hospital after being institutionalized for “5 years, 4 months, and 4 days.” How he ended up dying on his birthday is probably just a bizarre and unfortunate coincidence.

Dementia praecox was a term coined by Emil Kraepelin in the late 19th century and used to describe a set of symptoms and behaviors which would later be reclassified as schizophrenia. Dementia praecox usually presented itself between the late teenage years and early adulthood and those diagnosed with the condition faced a rapid and progressive deterioration of emotional and cognitive abilities.  There were many symptoms associated with dementia praecox, and a fairly detailed list can be found here.  Jesse Johnson may have experienced any combination of those symptoms, which included poor impulse control, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, catatonia, and antisocial behavior. Because he was institutionalized in his late twenties it’s probably safe to say that however his mental illness manifested, it prevented him from being able to function independently in society.

Original image housed by the Library of Congress

Reading about the history of the asylum, also called the Dorothea Dix Hospital, it seems as though Jesse was a patient there in 1926 when a fire consumed nine of the wards and the main building. It must have been quite a scene, with at least 400 patients evacuated and the National Guard’s presence to maintain order.

Without knowing how severe Jesse’s condition was it’s impossible to say what his daily life at the asylum was like. Patients had access to movies, an “Amusement Hall,” tennis courts, and dancing “lessons” from staff. Music was considered a powerful treatment for psychiatric symptoms. I sincerely hope that Jesse’s final years were filled more with music than darkness.

Ouida Hood’s Majestic Marker: A Love Story

A pink Victorian house overlooking a cemetery: I’m in love.

Raleigh, North Carolina’s Oakwood Cemetery is well worth a visit if you get the opportunity. This well-maintained cemetery covers just over 100 acres and boasts stunning examples of graveyard architecture spanning 140 years. I’ve been to Oakwood twice and still haven’t explored all the grounds, which means I’ll be going back soon (hopefully).

As I was leaving during my last trip I saw a very unique monument and stopped. I didn’t realize how close I was to the grave of Elizabeth Edwards, although the fact that other visitors were taking pictures of a nearby statue should have been a clue that I was close to one of Oakwood’s famous burials. (There’s always next time, right?)

Ouida Estelle Emery Hood’s grave is marked by one of the most elaborate memorials I’ve seen throughout all of my grave travels. I  think you would agree that based on her memorial someone must have loved her dearly to erect something so large and expensive. I saw that there were two names carved into the base of the monument, one was Ouida’s and the other name was Franklin Stanley Prikryl. Only a birth date was listed for Franklin, so at the time I thought his absence in the plot was another case of a spouse having remarried and moved on in both life and death.

The real story behind the monument and Franklin and Ouida’s relationship is a fascinating one woven across time, friendships, financial prosperity and ruin, and the miles between North Carolina and Michigan. Franklin and Ouida were never married; in fact she was married to another man who mysteriously left after signing over their home to her. After Ouida’s death Franklin not only had her body sent back to Raleigh and commissioned her monument, he had soil from her flower garden in Michigan shipped to the cemetery and spread over the grave so that flowers and grass would flourish there. He had the marker inscribed with his name so that he could be buried with Ouida, but when he died in 1962 he chose to be interred near his relatives in a California cemetery.  You can read a more detailed account of how the lives of Ouida, her husband, and Franklin were connected on Oakwood’s site. This article in The Sunday Morning Star‘s September 13, 1931 issue contains a few additional tidbits as well as a photo of Ouida taken during the last years of her life. According to the article, Ouida “lived under a shadow-the kind of shadow that often warps a child’s whole life.” I’m curious as to what that “shadow” was.

Why Franklin decided not to be buried beside his beloved Ouida remains a mystery, one which may never be solved. The planning, consideration, and money he invested in creating her memorial will live on as a reminder of his devotion and affection even though Ouida’s body rests beside a vacant grave.