Friday, October 23, 2015

Deconstructing the Gravestone of W.H. Adair

Somewhere in the middle of the Old Cemetery on Main street stands the unique gravestone of W.H. Adair. Out of all of the cemeteries I have traipsed in my day, this one grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go.

First, let's talk about the condition of the grave. In relation to the weathering that normally happens and can be seen on the other stones, this one has stood the test of time remarkably well. The symbols are crisp and beautiful. The lettering that identifies the deceased is slightly worn, but still fairly crisp. In fact, the only detractor at work is the discoloration from mold and dirt.

Walking through cemeteries is a wonderful educational experience. Not only do we learn about lifespan, naming practices, economic privilege and social status, but we also learn about hobbies, interests, and occupations/military service. Symbols can tell us a great deal, and those from fraternal organizations are some of the best in terms of embellishment and visual appeal. That was one of the things I noticed right away about this cemetery: the Freemason influence is strong. There are many stones embellished with Masonic symbols, and while the symbols on this stone do not match the square and compass motifs seen on many of the other stones in this cemetery, the complex symbolism can confuse anyone.

Some of the easily recognizable symbols that remind us of the Freemasons include: the all seeing eye, the tent, the apron, and even the beehive. All can be found in Masonic imagery. However, the dominance of the heart inside the hand and the three link chain indicate this is an Order of the Odd Fellows gravestone. It has been noted that some men were members of both, and "combination" stones do exist, but since the standard square and compass symbol is not present, I can't help but conclude that this is a very elaborate IOOF marker.

Of course, the "combination" theory is not impossible. As Douglas Keister writes in his book "Stories in Stone," one has to be careful when analyzing a stone with many symbols: "A little sleuthing will also reveal that many tombstones have the symbols of more than one society. This is particularly true of the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, who shared not only members but also a number of symbols."(p.183)

With the "combination" theory in play, it brought to mind another possibility. As I had mentioned earlier, the Freemason influence in the cemetery is significant. There are many large prominent stones bearing equally large Freemason symbols, specifically the square and compass. After looking at the symbols on this stone, I was very ready to put aside the combination theory as I wasn't seeing any of the main Masonic symbols carried on throughout the cemetery. And then I considered the beauty of the carvings: Quite elaborate and beautiful. Was this simply an Odd Fellow who wanted to remind folks of the importance of his fraternal organization? Trying to overshadow or out-do the Freemasons nearby? As in life, the tombstones can reveal relationships and passions that symbolically carry on after death. It made me chuckle as I thought of the fraternal relationships that still carry on in Cynthiana. It also made me want to know more about W.H. Adair....but that will have to wait for a future post.