In the Archives: Highland Cemetery Tour

A walking tour of the southern half

Editor’s note: Laura Bien’s local history column this week is a walking tour of the southern part of Highland Cemetery. Although she’s supplied a printable version with a map, as the gentlest of prods for readers to visit the cemetery, those who settle in to read the description onscreen will find that it hews to The Chronicle’s motto: “It’s like being there.” Bien’s columns come in a bi-weekly rhythm, and the next one will cover the northern part of the cemetery.

Arguably the most beautiful spot in Washtenaw County, Highland Cemetery offers an outstanding chance to examine 19th-century grave symbols. The following self-guided 1-hour tour, available in printable .pdf format with a map, highlights a range of the most interesting symbols in the southern half of the cemetery. Numbers in the text correspond to the map.

Highland Cemetery

An unusual depiction of a ship on a grave marker, seen at the end of the tour.

Visitors can reach the cemetery by traveling down Washtenaw to its terminus on Huron. Turn left on Huron and right on Cross Street through Depot Town. At the remains of the Thompson Building at River, turn left. You will pass Forest Avenue and the ornate brick Swain home on the northeast corner of Forest and River. Continue down River; Highland Cemetery is a quarter mile down on the left.

Inside the main gates, open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. until April 30 and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. from May 1 to September 30, a small parking lot appears on the right. Park here and walk west to Starkweather Chapel at the end of the main driveway.

Circling counter-clockwise around the chapel, the Worden family monument (1) comes into view on the right. It is crowned by a draped urn. One of the most popular of Victorian-era grave symbols, the urn is a classical motif that refers to funerary urns used by the wealthier of ancient Greeks for cremated remains. The cloth is a “pall,” a cover of usually black, purple, or white velvet used to cover a coffin (for some soldiers’ coffins, a flag is used as a pall). The phrase “to cast a pall [on a party] refers to this cloth associated with death and mourning.

At the Worden monument, looking southward and to the left, a field of white stone obelisks presents itself. Proceeding towards them, a tall gray obelisk (2) appears, slightly to the right. This unusual metal obelisk shows three panels that display a sheaf of wheat, a wreath, and a maiden with an anchor.

The sheaf of wheat denotes God’s divine harvest of the deceased, and often signifies a long and full life. The wreath signifies a victory over death. The anchor sometimes signifies a member of the navy or a mariner, but Colonel George Lee, buried here, was an Army man. In later life he served as the “Indian agent” for the state of Michigan. In this case the anchor likely signifies steadfastness of Christian faith; Lee was a Methodist.

Backtracking to the path, continue circling the chapel counter-clockwise. Just before reaching the first path on the right, notice the graves of Helen and B. D. Kelly (3). Both display a lily, a symbol of innocence, purity or Christian resurrection.

The tree stump grave for "Laura" includes a small headless lamb (at lower left)

The tree stump grave for "Laura" includes a small headless lamb (at lower left).

Turning onto the path, immediately on the right, lie two tree stump graves (4). Tree stumps denote a life cut short, or the brevity of life. On the stump furthest from the path, carved with the name “Wilson,” lies an ear of corn, said to be a symbol of resurrection.

On the stump closest to the path, for “Laura,” the wheat-sheaf-crowned stump includes two branches cut short, signifying lives cut short. Each branch has its own plaque with burial information. Though very hard to read, this is likely the grave of Laura and two of her children.

Note the small (headless) lamb on a ledge of Laura’s grave. Lambs are seen on the graves of children. There are, sadly, many small gravestones bearing lambs on their tops in Highland Cemetery.

Proceed down the path past the grave of the Thompson Building’s O. E. Thompson (5) on the right, towards the Civil War soldier’s monument in the distance. Look for John Reese’s white grave (6) on the left. It bears a down-pointing hand with chain. The hand is meant to be the hand of God selecting someone to bring to Heaven, and the broken chain symbolizes the death of a family member.

Just to the right of this grave is the James and Mary Court gravestone (7), bearing the compass and square that signifies that the deceased was a member of the Masonic fraternal group. The stone also shows the inverted star that symbolizes the Order of the Eastern Star, the onetime (now co-ed) women’s auxiliary to the Masons.

Walk to the Civil War soldier’s monument and follow the path’s rightward curve. Look for Allen P. Gale’s white grave (8) on the left. This is another, less legible, example of the down-pointing hand with chain. Just to the right of this grave, other Gale graves (9) lying flat on the earth show a crown topped by a cross. This represents the afterlife reward to believers in Jesus, who will be crowned with everlasting life. The graves also show parted drapery, likely signifying the parting of the veil of life to reveal the afterlife. Surmounting the crown is a banner, signifying victory or triumph.

Travel across the path to the large tree. Just to the right of the tree is a rare autographed stone. Visible at the bottom right corner of Jonathan Ellis’s stone (10) is the name of the Detroit stonecutter who carved it, W. E. Peters.

Now look to the left and behind Ellis’s stone. Eli Dickinson and Abigail Park’s tombstones (11) each show a hand pointing to a book. Books represent scholarship, knowledge, or memory, but usually, on non-Mormon Christian graves, the Bible. The hand likely serves to emphasize the importance of the book; “look to the Bible.” Just to the left of and behind these graves is one for H. K. Dickinson (12) showing a scroll held by a hand with ivy. The hand represents an angel’s hand recording the deeds of the deceased on the scroll of life. Ivy, due to its evergreen quality, represents immortality or lasting memory.

Further down the path, a white grave (13) on the left near the large Hay stone shows the common grave motif of a dove descending, symbolizing a descent from Heaven to guide the deceased upwards, or symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

Rounding the far corner and heading north, a pink Deubel family monument (14) soon comes into view. At its foot is a dog, likely just a representation of a beloved family pet. Sighting northwards from here reveals another dog, “Watch,” next to the Starkweather monument (15).

In front of and facing Watch, sight westwards behind the Starkweather monument. A white grave appears in the distance roughly thirty degrees to the right. En route to this grave is Catherine Crane’s grave (16), flat on the ground, showing a weeping willow tree, symbol of grief and mourning.

Also en route towards the white stone, notice the onetime wagon company shipping clerk Edwin Towler’s plaque (17), also flat against the ground. Its chain of three links is the symbol of membership in the Odd Fellows fraternal charity group.

Once at the white stone, examine the far side. Here on Tinnie Booth’s grave (18) is an exquisite depiction of the clasped hands motif. The sleeve on the left is a feminine one, and that on the right masculine; the symbol denotes unity in marriage.

Now turn around and walk to the obelisk at the top of the hill. On its right is a small white marble grave (19) near a marker labeled “84” (the graveyard section number). The ship depicted on the stone refers to Commodore James Patterson McKinstry’s naval career, which spanned the mid-1820s through the mid-1860s and included work in China.

Descending the hill and heading back towards the chapel leads to the exit.

Next week: a tour of the cemetery’s northern half.

Highland Cemetery gravestone

Mystery artifact

This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact and try to deduce its function.

Last week George Hammond correctly guessed that the mystery artifact was a frog gigger, or, frog spear. A couple of e-mailers also correctly guessed the item (but please do leave guesses in “comments” so that I can mention your name). This week in keeping with the Highland Cemetery theme, the Mystery Artifact is yet another “hand” symbol to be found elsewhere in Highland. What do you think it means? Take your best guess in “Comments” and good luck!

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives,” available in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books and in Ypsilanti at Cross Street Books, the Rocket, and Mix boutique. Bien will be giving a talk and signing at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Center on April 20 at 7 p.m.; and at the Ypsilanti Archives, 220 N. Huron St., on April 24 from 1-3 p.m.


  1. March 30, 2010 at 8:11 am | permalink

    The hand is pointing upward, indicating ascension to heaven and confirmation of life after death.

  2. March 30, 2010 at 9:10 am | permalink

    Also, the hand is in a quatrefoil window, which can have several meanings. It is a symbol of the women’s fraternity Phi Mu, a symbol of the Bishop James Madison Society (a secret society at the College of William and Mary), and can symbolize four major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) or more commonly the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). If I’m reading the gravestone correctly, Mr. Vanderbelt was born in 1790, which makes the first two possibilities unlikely, so I’d guess that it symbolizes the Evangelists here.

  3. March 30, 2010 at 10:33 am | permalink

    cmadler: That is fascinating. I had heard the Evangelists info, but I had no idea about Phi Mu or the secret society. Thank you for the information!

  4. By Christopher
    March 31, 2010 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    This is exactly the kind of information I’ve wanted to know about when walking around old cemeteries. Fantastic job. I’d love to see lots more of it, including how to “read” an old building for symbolism and/or practicalities that shaped the final form and details. Laura Bien’s articles are a destination for me.

  5. March 31, 2010 at 3:20 pm | permalink

    Christopher: Your comment just made my day. Next time you’re in Ypsi, I’d be glad to take you on a tour of Highland myself to point out all the beautiful stuff to be seen there. Thank you!