Deciphering German and
Bohemian (Czech) Gravestone Inscriptions
Many pioneers of Washington county were German, Czechoslovakian or Bohemian. And when these ancestors were buried in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tombstones were most often inscribed in their native languages.
Today, gravestone inscriptions are a valuable source of historical and genealogical information, but most of us have neglected to learn the native language of our forefathers and are unable to read those gravestones. Here, then, are translations of some common terminology used in epitaphs found in most local cemeteries in Washington county.
Rest in Peace Ruhe in Frieden Zde Odpociva born geboren (or, geb.)* narozeni date of birth -- Narozen (Nar.) or
date of death gestorben (gest.) Umrel (Um.) or Zemrel*** age alt Stari or Vek year jahr Leta or Roku Mother Mutter Matka Father Vater Otec son sohn Syn daughter tochter Dcera husband ehemann Maz wife frau Zena January Januar Leden February Februar Unor March Marz Brezen April April Duben May Mai Kveten June Juni Cerven July Juli Cervenec August August Srpen September September Zari October Oktober Rijen November November Listopad December Dezember Prosinec
*"Geb. den" would be translated, "Born on"
**Slovak for date of birth is Narodeny (Nar.) or Narodil.
***Slovak for date of death is Zomrel.
In addition, gravestones often had engravings of symbols. They may include: arches (victory in death); arrows (mortality); bird (eternal life); bird flying (resurrection); book open (teacher); bible open (minister); bouquets, flowers (condolences, grief, sorrow); broken column (loss of head of family); bugles (resurrection or military); butterfly (short lived, early death); corn (ripe old age); flying birds (flight of the soul); garlands, or the wreath of victory (victory in death); hands shaking (farewell); harp (praise to the maker); horns (the resurrection); hourglass (swiftness of time, or the person's time has passed); ivy (friendship, immortality); lamb (innocence); lily or lily of the valley (emblem of innocence and purity, or resurrection); morning glory (beginning of life); oak leaves, acorn (maturity, ripe old age); palm branches (victory and rejoicing); picks and shovels (mortality); poppy (sleep); portals (passageway to eternal life); rings broken (family circle severed); rose bud (morning of life, renewal of life); rose fully open (prime of life); roses (brevity of earthly life); shells (pilgrimage of life); stars & stripes on eagle (eternal vigilance, liberty); thistles (rememberance); torch inverted (life extinguished); torch horizontal (the torch has been laid down); tree stump (person's life has been cut short); trees (life); trumpeters (heralds of the resurrection); run with blaze (undying friendship); urn with wreath/crepe (mourning); weeping willow (sorrow); wheat sheaf (ripe for harvest, time for divine harvest); willows (earthly sorrow); and winged effigies (flight of the soul).
Kansas State Historical Society archaeologist and cultural resource specialist Randy Thies says that the earliest cemeteries in Kansas, excluding Indian burial grounds, were usually church cemeteries. He says German Lutheran graveyards, usually near churches, are among the most iunique because of the customn of burying adults and children in separate sections and of burying people in order of their death date. "There were no family plots," he says. "Where you were buried depended on when you died." It wasn't until much later that couples began to have spouse reservations to be buried together, regardless of their date of death, and family plots became the custom. He also says it is the Christian custom to bury people in an east-west direction, with the head to the west "so if you are there on resurrection day, you'll know it's time to get up and go to heaven."
While many cemeteries were affiliated with specific churches, some, like the Pecenka Bohemian Cemetery near Bremen on the eastern border of Washington County, was devoted to the Bohemian and Slovak community, with one side reserved for the Catholic denomination, the other side for Protestants. In at least one case, a husband is buried on one side and his wife on the other, because of their religious differences.
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