Photographer Douglas Keister tours the symbol-rich Chico Cemetery
The dead don’t talk, but their tombstones do.
When people stroll through the Chico Cemetery on Mangrove Avenue, they may not realize they’re seeing more than headstones and flowers. Upon closer inspection, the grave markers reveal an astonishing array of symbols, many connected to secret societies or exclusive groups such as Freemasons, Knights of the Templar, Daughters of the American Revolution, Odd Fellows, and many, many more.
“The Chico Cemetery has more secret-society symbols per square inch than any other cemetery in the world,” said Douglas Keister.
Without a trained eye, one might find it difficult to make sense of the symbols encountered while wandering among these final resting grounds, but a walk with Keister—a long-time Chico author and photographer who has 37 published books to his name, and who happens to be an expert on cemetery symbolism—makes the place come to life.
Casually dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, camera slung around his neck, Keister provided fascinating commentary. He explained that, while people in urban areas had many options for entertainment, in smaller places like Chico few such opportunities existed, so for companionship and camaraderie people turned to secret societies, most of which emerged in this country during the tough economic times following the Civil War. As part of their membership, people often received medical care, life and death insurance, a tombstone, and a burial plot.
Keister said he first gravitated to cemeteries about 15 years ago because he loved architecture—a subject on which he’s published several books. In spring 2010, his newest book (and his fourth on cemeteries), Forever L.A.: A Field Guide to Los Angeles Area Cemeteries and Their Residents, will be released. The book will include tales about the tombs of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.
“I tell young people to become an expert on something obscure,” he said, humorously noting he’s now considered a national expert on cemetery symbolism. He’s invited to speak around the world, and he writes for American Cemetery Magazine, penning articles including “Tombstone of the Month.”
As Keister conducted a mini-tour of the Chico Cemetery, ambling from tombstone to tombstone as if greeting old friends, he stopped and knocked on one, making a hollow sound. In the past, he explained, some tombstone makers used zinc. It lasted longer than marble or granite, had removable panels and was easier to ship. Bootleggers took advantage of these hollow tombstones, using them to hide booze during Prohibition.
Moving on to a white marble tombstone, Keister pointed out a woodsy motif on the granite face, which he said represents the Woodmen of the World. In most cemeteries, visitors see lots of little stone logs and tree trunks, known as “treestones,” marking Woodmen’s graves, he said. The marker read “Dum Tacet Clamat”—“Though silent, he speaks”—a poetic way, Keister explained, of saying “gone but not forgotten.”
Other common grave symbols include the rose, which always signifies a woman. A lamb usually represents a child or baby. Pinecones, ivy and weeping willows are all symbols of immortality, while entwined hands symbolize matrimony.
While on our walk, Keister told anecdotes from his travels to cemeteries and churchyards around the world, including Paris’ famed Père Lachaise, which Keister said was the model for the Chico Cemetery. Keister stopped to point out a stone with an engraving of a personification of a virtue—charity—and he explained that all of the virtues show up in cemetery symbolism.
Many cemeteries have special areas for the various societies. Freemasons’ graves are often adorned with the familiar compass and square. Odd Fellows have three chain links carved on their gravestones. Elks’ graves have an Elk and the letters BPOE (Benevolent Protective Order of Elks).
Keister draws on hundred-year-old directories of secret societies and other obscure documents to decipher symbols. He enjoys researching.
“I love a mystery,” he said. Once he puzzled over the initials “O.T.W.” on a Knights of the Maccabees tombstone. He finally deciphered that it meant “Old Testament Wisdom.” Many secret societies saw the Bible simply as a manual about how to live.
Working with cemetery symbolism has persuaded Keister—who once thought, like many of his generation, that he’d be cremated—to value cemeteries. “What I believe now is people aren’t disposable. Not to leave your name behind somewhere is selfish.” He added there’s been a “resurrection of tombstone art—no pun intended” because baby boomers think they’re special and want to leave something behind.
Keister said he’s beginning to think about what he wants on his own tombstone. Everybody should think about this, he said, because “You only have one chance to make a last impression.”