The thing that drew me first to cemeteries was the artwork. From the six-foot-tall limestone tree trunk in the graveyard near my parents’ house to the angels in Highgate Cemetery, I loved to see the sculpture best of all. It draws me out in all weather from drizzling rain to humid summer sun, in the icy January breezes and in the high desert glare. I’m well-known in my household for begging to see “just one more” sculpture.
I’ve seen some amazing things in my travels:
The original Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story (in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery) is small, compared to the copy at Stanford University, but it may be even more lovely for being human-sized. The “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life,” Story’s last work, was made to mark the grave of his wife Emelyn in 1895. Before Story’s sculpture, angels were always joyful emissaries, secure in the knowledge of Heaven to come for their charges. A grieving angel, overcome by loss, struck a chord that echoes in cemeteries across the world.
Then again, Italian cemeteries are full of one-of-a-kind artwork. It’s rarer to see in Midwestern cemeteries, but one of the most striking sculptures I’ve ever seen is in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Flint, Michigan. “Crack the Whip” is a collection of eight interconnected children running in a semi-circle. Sculpted by J. Seward Johnson, “Crack the Whip” is comprised of an Asian girl, two African American kids, a Native American, and four white kids, each distinct and individual. They are dressed in cleats and baseball shorts, a headband and a basketball jersey, a pinafore. The Asian girl has lost her Birkenstock sandal, which lies in the grass nearby.
The piece that blows everything else away for me is Forest Hills Cemetery‘s “Death and the Sculptor” by Daniel Chester French, the image that opened this post. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel.
More than any other artwork I’ve seen, this one speaks directly to me. I’ve always had a personal sense of how limited my time here is, how much work I have to do before I die. Even though I am surrounded by a friendly community of other writers, I know I am the only person who can tell the stories I’ve felt called to tell. I dread to be stopped in the middle of my masterpiece, as French’s sculptor was.
The clock is ticking, as Father Time reminds us. Time flies and no one knows the day or the hour.
Time to get busy.
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