Walking into Hollywood Cemetery one enters into a serene landscape of tranquility and beauty. The garden style cemetery is tastefully landscaped and wonderfully designed. Curving trails and gently rolling land taper off into views of the rapids at the falls along the James River. Flowers, trees, and shrubbery are positioned just so to create a connection to the Earth and the wonder that is nature. But it isn’t just the details of the well manicured property that juxtaposes beauty against the calm quiet that is the death that is all around one when in any type of cemetery. No, the beauty is found too in the memorials to the dead. Burial plots and gravestones offer up a plethora of artwork in the form of designs, symbols, and statuary dedicated to the remembrance of the deceased.
Walking around I was inundated with visuals of flowers, wreaths, trees, vines, hand signs, monograms, angels, animals, and other symbols dedicated to ranking in the military field or other various fraternal organizations. I wondered what meanings lay beneath each piece of art and decided I would do my field report on various symbols and there generic meanings.
I was particularly interested in a grave marked with a circle in which the letters HTWSSTKS were arranged around it. They were written on the center, keystone, of what seemed to be an arch on the top of the gravestone. I thought it would be initials like I had seen on other stones or the first letters of a popular prayer but nothing fit and I couldn’t find any other examples. I decided to search popular symbols and found a world of knowledge related to other stone symbols around Hollywood but not my mystery letters.
I found a page displaying various hand symbols. A hand pointing upward can mean a sign of the creator or of the trinity or benediction all depending on the number of fingers pointing up or the placement of the thumb. A hand pointing to the side has a masculine connotation.[i] Many of the hand symbols represented were present in Hollywood and usually found on the side of a pyre.
I happened across a Native American symbols site and noticed a few animals that had appeared on stones seen during our tour. A picture of a raccoon could mean a bandit but also shyness and determination. A hummingbird symbol could represent joy, miracles, and beauty. A butterfly’s image symbolizes metamorphosis, care freeness, and transformation.[ii]
I found many beautifully illustrated sites on the meanings of flowers. Each site was different from the next in the meanings of most blooms, vines, and leaves. For example, a lilly of the valley could mean happiness or sensitiveness. A cornflower could be hope in love, delicacy, or riches and a daisy could be gentleness, attachment, or innocence. Seeing these variations in meanings I wondered if the flowers symbolized on the many gravestones were just random preferences by the commissioner of the stone or if maybe the meanings changed when regards to use: one list I found was just a list of flowers and meanings found on bing images, one was an illustrated compilation found on a wedding flowers site, and one was a illustrated post found under a wiccan language of flowers heading. [iii] I also remember having heard that if a blooms stem is represented as snapped it represented a life cut short.
The meaning of dying young can also be linked to a tree stump shaped stone as explained on the Jewish cemetery symbols and their meanings site I visited. This site also explained some of the shapes found adorning the tops of stones. An acorn shape represents a greater life after death. “From little acorns giant oaks grow.” A ball shape shows the circle of life and eternity where as a vessel is used to symbolize that the body was the vessel for the soul.[iv] The Passare Simplifying End-of-Life Management site’s The Meaning of Memorial Headstone Symbols contained a wealth of knowledge and contained many of the symbols scattered about on various headstones but nothing contained those mysterious letters.
I finally just typed the letters into Google and searched. I found an image of exactly what I was looking for and traced the image back to Joy Jewelers. Joy Jewelers is a site that deals almost exclusively in Masonic fraternity jewelry and the image I found was a choice as a side image in a class style ring but the site offered up no meaning to the letters. I searched for the letters as a Masonic symbol and found my answer. The letters should be read starting at noon and going clockwise and represent the passage Hiram, Tyrian, Widow’s Son, Sendeth To King Solomon. There is a whole ritual surrounding this passage known as Duncan’s Ritual of Freemasonry which is the ritual of the Mark Master Fourth Degree of Royal Arch Masonry, York rite ceremony. The letters are written in a circle on a keystone and the member’s personal mark is placed in the middle. The stone I saw had no mark in the middle and may be due to the fact that many times marks are not recorded although they should be as once a mark is chosen it becomes like a name and cannot be changed.[v] This meaning makes sense because the owner of the stone was a Royal Arch Mason, as engraved on his stone. Many of the other Masonic symbols seen on gravestones correlate with what degree or group one belonged to and I found a pretty complete list at http://www.ontariodistrictmasons.com/Masonic_Paths_Cdn.jpg but there were also hundreds of Google images related to Masonic symbols and there meanings.
The symbols adorning the gravestones at Hollywood Cemetery are as beautiful as the surrounding landscape and as eclectic as the collection of people buried there and my search for one particular symbol showed me just the tip of the iceberg that is gravestone symbolism.
[iii] Bing images flowers+symbols+meanings