My poster Grave Markers as Protest Symbols: Using Cemeteries to Interpret the Intra-Ethnic Conflicts of Chicago’s Bohemian Immigrants has been selected for the April 2012 NCPH poster session. The full conference schedule will be posted in early December. Here is a sneak preview of the poster — using different trees. Don’t want to give away too much.
Limestone tree grave makers allowed people to memorialize their ideals and philosophies on their graves. These grave markers also preserve the intra-ethnic conflict between Catholic and Freethinker Bohemians. After the Catholic Church denied burials in Catholic cemeteries to Catholic Bohemians whose families had Freethinkers, the outraged Freethinkers founded their own cemetery. The Freethinkers allowed people to personalize their grave markers with secular and/or religious symbols. The Catholic grave markers emphasized a person’s religious devotion and utilized crosses. The limestone trees in Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery remind present day visitors of this old conflict.
Let’s interpret the following example from Bohemian National Cemetery, the Prinz Family Tree:
BNC Limestone Tree
Common to all limestone trees is the broken branch at the top – symbolizing a life cut short. The trees also have a space in the center where the bark is ripped off the tree to expose a spot for engraving the names of the interred. The Prinz family tree contains five key symbols: acorns, ivy, clasped hands, wheat sheaf, and mushrooms. All but the mushrooms have secular and religious meanings. The mushroom is significant to Bohemians as a symbol of ethnic pride. If you are Bohemian, you understand the irrational love of the mushroom. For the non-Bohemians in the crowd, we all have our quirks.
Clasped hands represent marriage if the sleeves are masculine and feminine or heavenly welcome if both sleeves are masculine. These sleeves appear to be masculine and feminine. Acorns can mean prosperity or spiritual growth from truth. Ivy can represent The Holy Trinity or immortality. A wheat sheaf illustrates a long life or the Resurrection. Masons also use the wheat sheaf on their graves. Since this tree lacks other Masonic symbols, we can probably reject the Masonic interpretation.
People buried in Bohemian National can be Catholic, Protestant, Freethinking, or agnostic/atheist. We cannot assume a wholly secular or totally religious interpretation of the tree. The sleeves are clearly secular. The use of multiple symbols of fruitfulness/prosperity and of long life lean towards a more secular interpretation of the tree. The family was proud of its success and lived long, productive lives. The ceramic photograph and the tree (rather than a traditional headstone) suggest that the Prinz family had means.
A cautionary note: acid rain has eroded the limestone, so other symbols may have evaporated or become indistinguishable. Our next tree from St. Adalbert is undoubtedly religious.
Three Cross Tree
There may be 6 crosses on the tree. The acid rain melted some elements on the Vachulka tree. Jesus lost his head on the crucifix, too. The inset crucifix scene, profusion of ivy, multiple Latin crosses, oak wreath, and rose on the right hand side all lend themselves to a 100% religious interpretation. Christians believe that oak is one of the woods used to make Christ’s cross, and the rose either symbolized martyrdom or purity. Given the crucifix scene, martyrdom is the more probable interpretation. The Vachulka family stressed their piety and faith in their limestone tree. Their own personal traits or values are subservient to their Catholic faith.
In each of these trees, the Prinz and Vachulka families memorialized their most important beliefs. Ivy is the common element, used by both families to represent their individual interpretations of immortality. The other design elements perpetuate the reasons why the families chose their respective cemeteries, perpetuating their beliefs into eternity. Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert preserve these gravemarker weapons from an intra-ethnic conflict now forgotten.
*I used Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone to interpret the design elements.