Cemetery Semiotics

My family’s religious heritage is Presbyterian. My dad’s side of the family has been Presbyterian probably since John Knox, and my mom, aunt, and grandmother eventually found the denomination suitable as well. I’m actually ordained as an Elder in the PCUSA, and Mrs. M is a Deacon.

When I was choosing a marker for my folks’ grave, I was looking through the various designs from which one can choose. For example, I could choose borders designed to look like evergreen boughs or dogwood branches (I opted for dogwood). There’s a panoply of different emblems that can go beneath the name of the deceased, from religious symbols to golf balls-on-tees. My maternal grandmother’s marker includes a simple Latin cross, while my grandfather’s bears the emblem of his union.

Since my folks were Presbyterian, I looked through the section of the catalog with the symbols of the assorted faith traditions and denominations. Under ours, I saw a Celtic Cross, and given my parents’ faith*, and their pride in our Scots and Irish ancestry (Heck, I even tried tossing a caber once), I thought it an apt remembrance. And so it went, and so their marker is decorated.

But in recent weeks, I’ve heard some acquaintances declaring their desire to disassociate themselves from the symbol, claiming that it has been co-opted by racist movements. As it turns out, a number of those cretins (the racists, not my acquaintances) do use it. But of course, the emblem predates those schmucks by centuries.

On the other hand, the swastika/fylfot was around centuries before the Nazis were, but in the West, people these days are far more likely to associate it with Hitler than Hinduism. That’s the thing about symbols, after all — they only work if the user and audience agree on what a given signifier signifies. (See also the debate in recent years over emblems of the Confederacy, which also mean different things to different people.)

Those Confederate emblems have largely been excommunicated from polite discourse, and the swastika now requires a fair amount of throat-clearing before discussing it (as we see when discussing editions of Kipling, for example.) Is this to be the fate of the Celtic Cross as well?

Bronze lasts a long time, and I can only hope it outlasts this particular form of the virus of racism. But even until then, I refuse to cede it to those who would use it as an emblem of their evil. I hope you will as well.

* Incidentally, I have seen it argued that Batman is (or at least was reared as) a Presbyterian. This was a bit of the evidence I’ve seen for the argument:


And you know? The name Bruce Wayne seems a bit Scots…

And there’s certainly enough Calvinism to the character to make the case. However, most folks seem to agree that he’s lapsed Catholic or Episcopalian. (Superman, meanwhile, was raised Methodist.)

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Faith, Family, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Cemetery Semiotics

  1. ScottO says:

    Having, as I’ve been told, a good deal of Scots-Irish in my background, I feel as if I ought to engage in more of the culture than the occasional Whisky. But I’ve never been athletic. Maybe I could try tossing a caberette?

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