Tombstone Tuesdayish: Handsies

I'm super tired. Bedtime was... I don't know... *flingy gesture at clock.* I'm only up and typing because *swirly hand motions meant to evoke a tongue-tied Jack Sparrow*.

You know what would be a good blog post? Talking about how today I finally went to Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace. It's almost certainly my last Vegas buffet before I go, which is too bad, because despite the food quality and nice touches (and excellent service, and when I pay $40 for lunch buffet, I notice all of these things), it was kind of awful for vegetarians, fig and balsamic gelato (mmm!) aside.

Then, after sharing all the pics I took (taken while I kept stepping out of the way for people doing walk-through videos on their phones), I would speak about how after lunch I went to visit my friend Jamie, the one who was struck by a semi-truck a few weeks ago. As she crossed the street in her wheelchair. To buy her service dog some treats. Dog lovers already in wheelchairs aren't supposed to be hit by semis. I'm pretty sure that was hard coded into the cosmic interface. So, not sure why Jamie's in this situation, but tomorrow she'll be back in the hospital for another operation for more skin grafts and to deal with the infection she got after leaving the hospital. But, you know, we'll talk about all that whenever her fundraiser gets going.

We could also talk about how it's Mike's first day at work as a Real Teacher. (Western Australian schools have summer break from mid-December to the start of February. It's okay; they have enough breaks the rest of the year to put them on the same level as what US kids get, something I'd like to point out to our well-meaning president who thinks more seat time is going to fix the baby prison system that is public education.)

We're not going to talk about how little Saffron, shade of my heart, is fading a little faster from this world.

I'd like to talk about the last book in the Wheel of Time series, but Mike's not done reading it yet. I know he only checks here every few monthsish, but best to be safe.

How about the aggressive homeless person at the intersection who mind-bullied me into giving her the fifty cents in my cupholder even though I wasn't making eye contact, and how I hate myself for not giving it to a beggar who doesn't stand in front of the car and shake his/her sign. Eating a $40 lunch makes it hard for weak souls like myself to refuse those less fortunate (even though it was a calculated splurge for my unemployed self and a bank account that is about to hyper-drain with overseas moving fees and visa application fees and whatnot, and even though I actually needed those quarters for the meter for some upcoming errands).

Nah, I don't want to talk about that.

Let us speak instead on another Geneablogger prompt, "Tombstone Tuesday."

In my genealogy files is my very first pedigree chart printout. I used Family Tree Maker 2.0 (came on three floppies), and the chart shows everything that I'd entered into the computer after interviewing (or pestering) my family but before even doing much with the census.

On that tree, my mother's father's father's mother is an almost blank box. Oh, we knew the name of her husband, the one who had been murdered (and, as is the theme today, deserves his own post but shall not get one for now), but who was Granddaddy Massey's mother?

Well, I had peeked at the 1880 census, so I knew her name was Rebecca, and she was born circa 1858 in Mississippi.


(And then I went to bed for the evening, except no, our Teddy had left. So, there was that, and then there was bed, and Tuesdays comes on Wednesdays now, and Saffron is our last hamster.)

Soon enough I would know from Mississippi marriage records that her name was Rebecca Jane Alderman and that was her sister (Sarah Groce) and brother (Jesse Alderman) living right by her, along with a few more siblings and her remarried-but-widowed-again mother on the same page. In fact, because of her I would spend significant hours in the 1990s learning about medieval genealogy, and because of that, I became a much better researcher.

So, I was really excited when I got a photo of her headstone a few years later.

(This isn't my photo. Volunteers Connie and Larry Scarborough kindly took this one in response to my FindaGrave request when all of my things were packed from the last move.)

I could do a whole side rant here about how much I hate flat markers. I know they make perpetual care of cemetery grounds a realistic option, and of course they're less likely to break or fall over, and I understand that the weathering away of inscriptions probably happens at a slower rate, but I still miss the days of an upright marker and all the lovely design they allow.

Rebecca's tombstone was the first I ever saw with a hand on it. Being green in the way of cemetery art, I ran straight to Usenet to ask what this secret handshake with the pointing finger meant. (And to assure people that while my example photo was a whopping dial-up buster of 58k, it was a progressive jpg.)

Back then I had no idea about hand symbolism on headstones. At first I was mostly curious about the finger. A finger pointing downward in reference to a dead person seems a little, you know, negative. The consensus seems to be, though, that the finger pointing down is that of God beckoning the earthly soul to come on up to Heaven. That's right: God choo-choo-chooses you. (But not me, because I make worn-out Simpsons allusions when discussing my great-great-grandmother's cemetery marker.)

What's interesting to me about the finger here, though, is that it's attached to a hand, and the hands seem to have masculine and feminine cuffs. Supposedly clasped hands with his-n-her sleeves represent married love (if this scholarly PDF that I was just happily lost in for ages is correct), but Rebecca's marker has clasped hands and a pointy finger.

Is it just an efficient symbolism combo, or does combining the two create new meaning? (And was the symbolism universally agreed upon in 1896 or did interpretations vary by region, faith, etc.?)

It's not her husband clasping her hand and leading her to heaven, as suggested by this nice glossary of Victorian funerary symbolism, since he died after her. Some places say the finger is pointing out the inscription or the resting place of the deceased, but underscoring the obvious seems a little off to me.

The clasped hands with the sleeves and pointing finger isn't an unusual decoration. Perhaps People Back Then didn't giggle over the idea that God might be wearing a stylish coat.

I feel as though my ancestors tended not to have very decorative markers, but given the number of headstones lost or not yet found, perhaps that's a misconception. A few others have hand imagery, though, such as greatx4 grandmother Malinda Simmons Smith, whose stone has since been replaced. This is the original:

Happily, though, the new marker found a way to retain the hands as well as the inscriptions. (I assume that whoever put this much effort and cost into the new marker is taking good care of the old ones.) In this case, the clasped hands seem to represent the couple. Notice, though, that this is not so much a handshake as a depiction of a passive feminine hand being held by a masculine hand. I can't tell if that was the case with the original.

Photo by Deb McDaniels for FindaGrave

Thanks to volunteer Chris Hough, here's a photo of my greatx4 grandfather Jesse Stanley's marker:

He has the finger pointing up, which various sources say represents heavenly ascent or at least the hope of it. His wife Susannah, though? She has the same engraving as Rebecca: clasped hands, gender-specific sleeves, pointing finger. I'll be honest; I never even thought about how this had popped up again until I started typing this post.

(Thanks go to FindaGrave volunteer Marilyn Sanner Keim for the photo.)

And I can thank Becky Patlan for her photo of greatx5 grandfather Jonathan Stout's marker, much as I thank Jonathan Stout for keeping Bible records of his in-laws' names, births, and deaths. (I admit to sometimes thanking him with sarcasm - why didn't he write down the names of his own parents?!!)

It's hard to tell in this one, but I have another photo (too lazy to upload at the moment) where it's clearer that a masculine hand is gripping a somewhat passive feminine hand. (Great, now I'm struggling to determine the degree to which the feminine hands are passive and whether people gave much thought as to how limp the woman's hand should be. And you know, now that I look back on Rebecca's marker, what's up with her middle finger being so long? I feel like her hand looks a little extra-squeezed, too.)

I was going to stick to just direct blood relatives here, but I think my greatx3 step-grandmother is worth noting. See, Milton Trimble had four wives. (Sounds like the start of an folk round.) The last one lasted, as last ones do, and heaps is known about her. The first one, though, died just before the 1870 census when my greatx2 grandfather was only months old. Oh, and the family had the nerve to be living in a part of Arkansas where many marriage records were destroyed by fire. We have almost no idea who she was.

After that, Milton married his second wife, who was named Elizabeth. She was gone before the 1880 census. In 1882, he married Katie Brown, and little was known of her since she died 10 months later. To be honest, Katie never really pinged my radar. I feel bad saying that, since she was a member of the family, but with so many people to think about and her not being the mother of any of Milton's children, well, she just became a sort of academic fact on paper... until the day this appeared on FindaGrave (with thanks to Melisa Thompson):

This is a rather lovely marker for the brief third wife of my ancestor. Did Milton erect it? Her family? She was 45 when they married; had she been married before?

Note how the masculine hand's point is subtle, what with the short finger, and the feminine hand isn't lying flat nor is it covered by the masculine hand. In fact, it looks like the feminine hand is almost in motion, the forefinger starting to rise.

I think the design is telling me something about Milton and Katie, but I'll never really know what. Still, part of the fun of the hobby of family history is trying to imagine.

29 January 2013 |






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