Book Review: Stories in Stone

photo by: dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA


Keister, Douglas. (2004). Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith. 256 pp., ISBN: 008-2552023218 (hc). $24.99

I purchased this book from Amazon in hopes of finding a text that I could use in the field or at least handy at my desk as I record historic cemeteries in a professional capacity. Its size, and accompanying description on the product page sold me on it. “Stories in Stone provides history along with images of a wide variety of common and not-so-common cemetery symbols, and offers an in-depth examination of stone relics and the personal and intimate details they display-flora and fauna, religious icons, society symbols, and final impressions of how the deceased wished to be remembered. Douglas Keister has created a practical field guide that is compact and portable,…”

The book itself is beautiful. No doubt. Even though it is small in size, the cover and the photos are gorgeous. The layout is great and logically planned in chapters with titles like “Flora,” “Fauna,” and “Religious Devotion.” There’s even a nice, woven-fabric bookmark built in. The size is thoughtful as well: you can easily slip this text in a back pocket (though it’ll stick out some) or in a messenger bag or day-pack. The coverage of symbolic motifs is wide and the author is very descriptive of what these individual motifs mean.

I afraid, however, my compliments end here.

For all its beauty and convenience, the book simply cannot be used for any serious purpose. And it should not have carried the subtitle, A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. A better title would have been, Stories in Stone: A Photographer’s Opinion on What They Say.

None of the book is referenced with how the author arrives at the conclusions he does. In no instance does he cite the work of historians, archaeologists, mythologists, folklorists, etc. As i read through the book, I found myself wondering “how does he know?” at every page. The reader is forced to either accept it all at face value or dismiss the text altogether. I’m no expert in cemetery symbolism (hence the desire to obtain a serious text on the subject), but there are some things I was aware of prior to reading Stories in Stone. And, as I encountered item after item of things I knew or suspected to be contrary, different, or incomplete from the author’s description, I realized that none of the descriptions can be taken at face value regardless of how many he gets right.

Weeping Willow and Urn
As an example, Keister describes the weeping willow and urn motif as “one of the most popular gravestone decorations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” and that in “Christianity it is associated with the gospel of Christ because the tree will flourish and remain whole no matter how many branches are cut off.”

Specifically, this motif peaked in popularity during the 1820s “following a report that the exiled Napolean sat under one for daily mediation on the island of St. Helena and loved it so much that he asked to be buried on that spot” (Linden 1980). Linden goes on to describe the willow and urn motif as a popular design in American folkart where it was used in embroidered or painted mourning pictures. Keister gets it right when he says, “although the form of the weeping willow certainly suggests grief and sorrow,” but misses the broader meaning of a more post-Puritan, post-Calvinist notion of meditation and association of the rural landscape with heightened “Pleasures of the Eye” to quote Aldous Huxley. Contrary to Keister’s claim that this is an association with the Gospel of Christ, the willow would seem to be a very secular, yet still spiritual, motif.

A motif that I think Keister gets partially right but somewhat incomplete is depictions of the rose. He states, “the red rose became a symbol of martyrdom, while the white rose symbolized purity. In Christian mythology the rose in Paradise did not have thorns, but acquired them on Earth to remind man of the his fall from grace; however, the rose’s fragrance and beauty remained to suggest to him what Paradise is like. Sometimes the Virgin Mary is called the “rose without thorns” because of the belief that she was exempt from original sin. In Victorian-era cemeteries, the rose frequently adorns the graves of women.”

The rose has been called an “ancient symbol of the Magna Mater” by some authors (e.g. Jordan 2010), meaning that it represents the idea of the “mother goddess” that predates even Christianity. Such pagan ideas are said to survive the dominance of Christianity because the new religious ideas re-purpose the meaning of the old (much like the Yule Tree to Christmas Tree conversion). But what matters most is how the living see the association with the dead when the motif is chosen for a stone. Keister say’s it “adorns the graves of women” but, to be more specific, it adorns the graves of mothers when depicted in full blossom and thorns. Rosebuds or partially blooming roses often adorn the graves of infants, children, or teens. A broken rosebud will almost always reflect the “life cut short” of a young person. Lindley (1965) notes that the inspiration for roses on gravestones is clearly inspired by the Southern and British folk custom of planting rose bushes in graveyards.

Keister might have most of the symbols correct. The book might be 90% or more on-point. But the reader will never know. Nor will an inspired reader have anywhere to explore Keister’s conclusions on “how he knows” the symbolism he describes, as there is no “further” or “suggested” reading sections much less a bibliography.

Soon after my purchase, I rated it on Amazon with 2 stars for the design, photos, and layout of the text. If you’re looking for a pretty book with pretty photos to sit on your coffee table, this one will fit that bill. But if you want something you can cite or a reference that you can rely on, this isn’t it. A better choice might be Jordan’s work listed below in my references. His is a book that is really more about southern cemeteries than the title lets on.

Linden, Blanche M. G. (1980). “The Willow Tree and Urn Motif.” Markers: The Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies I: 149-156.

Lindley, Kenneth. (1965). Of Graves and Epitaphs. London: Hutchinson.

Jordan, Terry G. (2010). Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy. University of Texas Press.

photo by: dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA
photo by: dee E. Warenycia, Roseville, CA
About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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