Genealogy: Which Cross To Bear

Standing in a cemetery or graveyard, I am always struck by the amount of information you can gather about a person from their gravestone.  Of course a stone can tell you the year someone died and/or were born.  It can tell you the proper spelling of their name.  It can note that they were a beloved mother, father, child or grandparent.  It may, as in the case of my Great Grandparents (Taraczkozy), give away their nationality through a verse in their native tongue (Hungarian in the case of my Greats).  It can tell you of their military service through an additional bronze marker and/or etchings on the stone.  Note: Stones can also mislead.  They are only as good as the information provided by the one who purchased it. Also coming to mind are the symbols for the Masons which you see in almost every cemetery.  Since visiting Cambria County, I now realize the WIDE variety of crosses you might find as well.  This blog is about a specific style of cross, the Orthodox Cross.

During the trip I found myself in the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Elmora, Pennsylvania. Finding that particular cemetery is the focus of another blog.  Just suffice to say that Sacred Heart’s cemetery is (pretty much) connected to the graveyard for Sts Peter and Paul Orthodox Church.

The headstones for Sts Peter and Paul point toward the church.   The markers for Sacred Heart Catholic Church, in the field and on the hill adjacent to these plots, all face the rising sun.  Sts Peter and Paul is a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to their website.    Not realizing that this site was actually two cemeteries, not just Sacred Heart, I made my way through all of the graves to find my Grandparents.  Along the way, I kept noticing a particular style of cross with three crossbeams that looked like:

Because my Genealogy Buddy Nau gifted me with a book of graveyard symbols (which I brought along, knowing we would be looking for stones), I was able to quickly assess that these crosses are Russian Orthodox Crosses (one crossbeam more than a Russian Cross). This is a variation of the Christian cross, known from the 6th century Byzantine Empire.  There are three horizontal crossbeams, the lower of the three being at an angle.  It was introduced before the break between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. These crosses can be found in architectural artwork and Byzantine frescoes dating back to the 1500s.  In 1551, during the canonical isolation of the Russian Orthodox Church, Grand Prince Ivan the Terrible started using this style of cross on the domes of churches.  It is also depicted on Russian state coat of arms and military banners.

The meaning behind the three crossbeams:  the top represents the plate which is inscribed with a phrase based on John’s Gospel “The King Of Glory” (INRI), the middle is the same as other Christian crosses and depicts where Christ’s hands were nailed and the bottom beam is the footrest.  The footrest slants higher on Christ’s right side toward the penitent thief St Dismas, who was (according to Russian tradition) crucified on Jesus’ right and downward toward the impenitent thief Gestas, who was crucified to Jesus’ left.

The Orthodox Church of America describes the cross on their website.  For that description, you can click HERE.

I love learning about other cultures and religions.  It is great to have a friend who enjoys genealogy as much as I do and who shares in the curiosities of the research.

Below are a few more photographs of the Russian Orthodox Crosses and their placement within the cemetery.




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