Essays

Finding Hidden Stories in Tombstone Art

by Allison Meier on June 21, 2013

Fort Sill Cemtery

Grave of an Apache warrior at Fort Sill Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Military cemeteries seem incredibly uniform with the simple headstones showing little more than rank, name, the dates of life, and a symbol of religion. Yet there are still some hidden messages in the stones.

This is especially true in a place like Fort Sill, where Buffalo Soldiers, American Indian POWs, and Army soldiers going back to the 19th century are buried. While visiting the fort in Lawton, Oklahoma, I talked with the cemetery caretaker who explained some of the overlooked details. I’ve long been fascinated with cemetery art and symbolism, as it reflects the changing attitudes towards death, and memorialization. It’s also something of an overlooked art form as contemporary tombstones just aren’t on the whole as personalized and finely crafted as they once were, when each headstone was not just a marker, but an artistic tribute to the deceased.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Geronimo’s grave

The fort actually has several cemeteries, including those for the Comanche tribe, the largest called the Old Post Cemetery that has operated as a non-segregated cemetery for over 130 years, and a burial area for the Apache prisoners of war and their relatives. Of those Apaches, the most famous is of course Geronimo. He’s buried under a pyramid of stones topped with an oddly two-dimensional eagle, and around him are those who fought with him and his family members. (Whether or not his skull is there is another question, although I highly advocate reclaiming by whatever means necessary the skull said to be held by the Skull and Bones Society and claimed to be his.)

The stories represented in just the names on the stones are astounding, with legendary American Indian figures like Comanche leader Quanah Parker to Kicking Bird, a High Chief of the Kiowas who mysteriously died after drinking a cup of coffee at Fort Sill (poisoning is suspected). But there’s much more in the stones than just names that you can later Wikipedia. Here are just a few hidden messages I discovered:

Fort Sill Cemtery

Champ White “Civilian” grave

The “civilian” indicator on the headstone doesn’t necessarily mean that the deceased was a civilian. These headstones often indicated that the deceased was black, as a subtle message of Civil War-era segregation.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Unknown grave at Fort Sill

You can also easily date a military headstone from the detail put into it. The oldest are the most elaborate, like this sculpted shield, then they switch to just the outline of a shield, then to a circled cross, then just a simple cross.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Grave of Hunting Horse

Fort Sill Cemtery

Grave of Kicking Bird

Here are graves for Kicking Bird and Hunting Horse that show the different crosses. (Although the Kicking Bird grave has an early death date, his grave was long unmarked and the stone is more recent.) Although I’m sure that the choice of Christianity as their religion with the cross was definitely a military decision.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Grave of Buffalo Soldier Jesse Bicheres

Similarly, you can tell certain things about the size of the stones. For example, the stones for the 10th Cavalry soldiers, an entirely black military unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers, are smaller than the white military stones of the same era.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Shipped from St. Louis

This tomb might not seem particularly remarkable, except for it being a hefty piece of marble, but the little signature with “St. Louis, MO.” on the bottom, along with the death date of 1873, indicate that this thing was brought all the way to the middle of Oklahoma on a wagon.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Insurance tree

This tree stands out among the white headstones, and was actually part of an insurance deal, where by signing up you also got this tombstone for your inevitable pay out.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Grave of a child

Fort Sill Cemtery

Farewell hands

Here are a couple of more traditional headstones, indicating not just non-military, but something about these people and the care that went into their graves. The first is for a child, which are often elaborate to reflect the huge heartbreak of their loss, and the second with one hand letting go of the other in farewell is for the Delaware hero of history Black Beaver. His grave was also moved from his Oklahoma ranch to Fort Sill in 1976, a story also indicated by his headstone being so unique.

Fort Sill Cemtery

Apache grave

Finally, over in the Apache cemetery, the caretaker told me that their tradition is for the headstones to face west, as their life has ended, as opposed to the Christian headstones that face east for the Resurrection. They also often only put “sunrise” and “sunset” rather than dates on the tombs. However, these traditions weren’t honored by those tombstones placed by the military, but in those more recent graves like the one above, which shows a mountain spirit dancer, you’ll see the name facing west.

Those are just a few of the messages you can read in the stones of cemeteries, although each burial place has its own stories and traditions. And it always helps to take a moment to talk with those people who spend each day of their life tending to the interred.

Fort Sill and its cemeteries are in Lawton, Oklahoma. 

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  • whim

    Great post. I had never thought about American control of Indians in death before, although the need to do so is bureaucratically obvious. I pass through Oklahoma City frequently and will schedule a visit.

  • lipstadt

    Thank you for writing this. Very interesting.

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