Tombstones of Carver County

Local tombstones provide a peak into the past
Wendy Peterson-Bjorn, at Waconia Cemetary, is the executive director of Carver County Historical Society

If you could leave a message for your descendants, what would it be? What would you want them to know about you? That you were a loving parent? What you looked like, or maybe who, or what you loved? 

The last word on the topic of you is often found in a cemetery. As macabre as that may sound, tombstones reflect the social norms, the essence of a person and provide the last word about the deceased. Tombstones are artifacts, which can be read if you know how. 

Early Carver County tombstones would appear to simply list the date of birth and the date of death. Yet, upon closer examination, symbols and inscriptions open a portal into the life of the deceased. Unraveling the symbolisms found on stones is not as hard as you might think. The most common symbols include: a lamb which signifies a child is buried, the arch-a symbol of passage to heaven, a bible or book indicating the person was religious. The calla lily is a symbol of beauty, clasped hands states a farewell to earthly life or unity, a column indicates mortality, a draped arch shows mourning, a cross is the symbol for Christianity and if you see a dog, it indicates loyalty. The initials GAR stand for Grand Army of the Republic, and where a Civil War soldier is buried.

The shape of the tombstone and what it is made of is another clue to learning about each person. Carver County is full of interesting tombstones shapes. Several older stones were not stones at all, but rather iron crosses of German immigrants. The crosses are beautiful, intricate works of art. They are have rusted, over time, obscuring the names and dates of the person buried there, and in some cases, the crosses have collapsed completely.

Not all tombstones are solemn.  Near Hamburg, one gentleman had the sculpture of an Oliver tractor added. In Waconia, there is a stone in the shape of a park bench that encourages people to stop and rest.

The tree stump is a commonly found shape. It usually contains symbols such as anchors, lilies and vines. Each items telling a little more about the departed. Broken braches on the tree symbolize a life cut short. In St. Bonifacious, there is a tree in the shape of a cross indicating a Christian life cut short. 

Genealogy is also associated with a tree. One tree stump had longer tree branch stumps.  A family member name was engraved on each end of the branches.

Several stones in Carver County are very specifically meant for future genealogists by listing the woman’s maiden name along with her married name. This is noted through the use of the word “nee” then the maiden name, allowing the deceased to be connected to other family members buried nearby.  

The use of a picture on the stone is not new. Photos can be either engraved directly on the stone or imprinted onto an oval, which is then is inserted onto the stone. The earliest photos, in Carver County, appear to be from the early 1950s. 

A very poignant tombstone can be found at the Moravian Church Cemetery, near Waconia. A young boy, Joey Wilm (1985-1993), has his picture is at the top of the headstone. Below is an epitaph/poem that beautifully describes who he was.

I’m Glad I am Me

No one looks the way I do, I have noticed it is true,

No one walks the way I walk, no one talks the way I talk,

No one plays the way I play, no one says the things I do,

I am special, I am me, there is no one

I would rather be than me

There is no question he had the last word about his life.    


Dig Deeper

The Carver County Historical Society in Waconia is offering a series of events this October.

Customs of Death and Dying

This new display at the Carver County Historical Society explores the traditions and customs of our own culture. Opens 10 a.m. October 6. Free.

Cemetery Tour

View the Customs of Death and Dying display at the Carver County Historical Society, and then tour two local cemeteries to visit the tombs of some famous and not-so-famous people in Carver county history. Free to members; $1 for nonmembers.

How to “Read” a Headstone

Join the Carver County Historical Society as you learn how to “read” the hidden last words found on a tombstone. This event will feature several unusual Carver County headstones and the history-making people found there. Starts 10 a.m. October 20 at the Waconia Public Cemetery. Free to members; $1 for nonmembers.