I spend a LOT of time in cemeteries. They are usually older ones with stone markers, not the modern ones with bronze plates flat on the ground so the maintenance crew can mow around them more easily. I do visit a few of those for Find a Grave. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed another difference between the two.
Old cemeteries often have a lot more graves for infants and children. And it’s truly sad.
One of my favorite haunts is East View Cemetery, which has a number of children’s graves. Two of them always tug at my heart and feature little shoes and socks on top. To find two of them in the same cemetery is rare, so I think they may have been created locally by the same stone mason.
I’ve wondered if little Brenda Darlene Starr had the nickname of “Twinkle” because of the Brenda Starr comic strip that started in the 1940s. In it, top reporter Brenda Starr had a child named Starr Twinkle, with husband Basil St. John. I don’t know why little Brenda died but it’s clear she meant a lot to her family.
There’s another style of children’s grave that is no longer common but when I see it, I am always struck by it. Some call it the “baby on a half shell” style because it involves a carving of an infant or a child resting inside a seashell of some kind. The style was popular from the 1870s into the 1920s, and Sears and Roebuck even offered them in varying sizes in their catalog. Annette Stott wrote an excellent article about them that goes into further detail.
Where did this shell motif come from?
During the Victorian era and into the turn of the century, the image of childhood was an innocent, fragile one. Artists such as Margaret Tarrant, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott used playful images of children, babies, fairies, and elves to illustrate nursery books and children’s tales. So it seemed a natural progression to use such images in gravestones for these little lives sadly cut short.
The sad reality was that children often died during this era with surprising frequency. In 1880, almost 22 of every 100 children born in the U.S. died before they reached their first birthday. Ten years later, that rate was 15 percent. In 1900, more than one in every 10 infants still died before the age of one, not including stillbirths.
Another popular gravestone style is the figure of a child as an angel or a cherub. Pictured above is Mary Ruth Britt, who died at the age of four for reasons unknown.
However, the most common symbol by far on the graves of children and infants is the lamb. It signifies the innocence, purity and sweet nature of childhood as few other images can. To some, it also signifies the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. You can still see them today on many graves, some being more elaborate than others.
Sometimes the lamb is carved into the stone itself, as you can see in Mary Nell Driver’s grave below.
Sometimes I do come across some unique child/infant graves that tend to defy the usual symbolism. That is definitely the case at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. Blake and Rosalie White had eight children but five did not make it past childhood. Little Rosalie Raymond White was one of those five.
Another child’s grave that I came across also features a casting but it is of the child’s hand, not his face. I think the simplicity of it is touching. It’s also made of white bronze (zinc), which is a style and material I admire. I have never seen one like this before or since.
Unlike most of the others, I was able to find out a little bit about Louis’ family. His father, Louis S. Johnson, was the second mayor of Largo, Fla., and was a successful businessman. He owned the Largo Hotel. Son Lloyd Johnson was born in 1918 and went on to become a CPA, and one of the original city commissioners for nearby Indian Rocks Beach (where we were vacationing when I visited this cemetery).
There are a number of other styles of child/infant graves but these are the ones that I’ve come across in my almost two years of cemetery hopping. Some are more elaborate than others, while some are small and simple.
Regardless of style, they remain a poignant reminder of a life that never had the opportunity to reach its full potential. A whisper of what might have been.
I’ve seen the lamb & stump stones quite often, but have never come across a death mask or the shell. I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. I wonder if they’re possibly a regional thing, too? I live in Michigan. I’m going to Arkansas this winter so I’ll be looking.
Lisa, if you take pictures of any while you are in Arkansas, post them to my AICH Facebook page. I would love to see what you find.
There is an infant/child’s grave in the cemetery of Harmony Baptist Church in Whiteville, TN. It’s a stone inside a baby bed frame. A similar one is in the big cemetery on Margin St., in Brownsville, TN. There is also a tree stump style stone in the Brownsville cemetery, but I don’t know if it’s a child grave though.
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Michael Robeson said:
Hello Ms.Rylands, I also visit cemeteries often. In my hometown in Bavaria, Germany, there is a beautiful one with a section reserved only for children who died very young (frueh verstorbenen Kinder). All of the graves, even those that are over 10 years old, are to this day beautifully decorated, or perhaps commemorated, with flowers and plants and small toys and dolls. I never saw such a place in the many American graveyards I visited. Have you?
Hi, Michael! There are some cemeteries that have children’s graves decorated in the manner that you describe. But some cemeteries don’t allow people to decorate graves very much because it impedes mowing the grass around it. However, I have seen many children’s graves like the ones you are describing. It just varies from cemetery to cemetery.
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My grandma was the youngest out of 14 kids, grandma was born in 1937, her mom was born in 1889, her dad was born in 1880, when her parents got married her mom was only 13 and her dad was 22 (very disgusting and illegal by today standards but back in the old days it was sadly normal) so by the time my grandma was born her dad was in his late 50’s and her mom was in her late 40’s and her eldest living siblings were easily old enough to be her parents and her actual parents were old enough to be her grandparents, the two eldest sadly passed away (one was a baby girl only four months old and the other a baby girl only two years old) and while them passing away is of course incredibly heartbreaking the fact that out of 14 kids only 2 passed away and the rest lived well into old age is insane because of how high the child mortality rate was back then.
By the way I was born, raised and lived in South Carolina for my entire life and i’ve lost count how many times i’ve been to Charleston because not only is it absolutely beautiful there but I love history, love going to old cemeteries/graveyards and it’s just chopped full of things I love. I’ve been to Magnola many times and it’s for sure a beautiful peaceful place, so thanks for posting! 🙂
Hi, Stephanie! Thank you for sharing that about your family. There were some child brides in my family tree as well. I often ask myself when I am researching a family how one family member, a grandmother, can live to 89, and yet in another family, five out of six of the children all died before the age of five. Was it good genes? God’s grace? Luck? Who can say?
Charleston is an amazing place, that is for sure. I’ve been blessed to be able to visit it often in recent years. I never get tired of visiting and always find something new and special in the cemeteries I visit.