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.
Detail of Crack the Whip
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.
Father Time at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma
The clock is ticking, as Father Time reminds us. Time flies and no one knows the day or the hour.
Published in 1972 when Americans were beginning to wake up to the kinds of landscapes they were surrounding themselves with, Victorian Cemetery Art proposed that people look back at earlier consciously-created landscapes. Photographer Edmund V. Gillon opens the book with a quick overview of the garden cemetery movement, illustrated with lovely etchings of the era, then moves into describing the iconography and statuary common to the Victorians.
Gillon points out that the very anonymity of the artists who created cemetery monuments forces us to look at their work freshly, forced to judge it on its own merits rather than because it was created by someone famous or is displayed by a well-regarded museum. He points out that generations of Americans learned about art solely from their visits to the local cemetery, because in most communities, that was where art was kept.
After the brief introduction, Gillon sets about illustrating his argument. In 260 black-and-white photographs, he displays all that is lovely about American Victorian-era cemetery decorations: angels, grieving women, veiled children, family pets, and more. He illuminates trends in iconography, like the open book, the heavenly gate, the sphinx, the broken harp, and whole flocks of birds. Some of my favorite monuments are those to sailors, whether lost at sea or anchored to their faith.
I don’t know enough about the history of Gillon’s book to know if it brought about the resurgence of interest in cemeteries for which he hoped. Now, as an artifact of another’s cemetery obsession, it’s a book that reaches across the years to spark our own explorations.
Forest Hills Cemetery’s original gateway had been Egyptian, styled after the ancient portico at Garsey, on the Upper Nile.
The cemetery had been founded as nondenominational at the start. Despite that, the cemetery’s 19th-century clientele rejected Egyptian architecture as too pagan. They wanted something solid that spoke of good Christian values. What they got was a grand tripartite Gothic archway, more beautiful to my eyes than the Old Granary Burying Ground’s strange little Egyptian gate. Forest Hills’ entryway is Gothic in a completely over-the-top fashion, lots of flowery granite capitals above the crumbling sandstone blocks.
It promises, “He that keepeth thee will not slumber.” A six-pointed star adorned the top of the gateway, but Garden of Memories suggests that it seemed not to be a Star of David, but was rather a Solomon’s seal, signifying the union of soul and body. That seemed an odd sentiment for a graveyard, since they tend philosophically to lean toward the separation of what’s eternal from what’s mortal.
Forest Hills Cemetery
95 Forest Hills Avenue Boston, Massachusetts 02130
Telephone: (617) 524-0128
firstname.lastname@example.org Established: 1848 Size: 250 acres Number of interments: 99,000, as of 1998. No later figures are readily available. (See the final link below.) Open: The cemetery grounds are open every day, including Sundays and holidays, from dawn to dusk.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Boston’s elite came out from the city to build summer homes and country estates beside Jamaica Pond. It made sense that they would want their own graveyard, too. New England Cemeteries: A Collector’s Guide acknowledges that Forest Hills is lesser known, probably from surviving in the shadow of Mount Auburn, but it is “unquestionably worth a visit.” I’d have to agree.
Founded in 1848, 17 years after Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, Forest Hills Cemetery featured lovely artwork from the start. Its most famous sculpture stands right inside its gate. Death and the Sculptor by Daniel Chester French may be the most magnificent work of art I’ve ever seen in a graveyard. The large bronze combines relief work and statuary. Death is a stern-faced matron dressed in Grecian robes and a large-cowled cloak. She reminds me very much of Walter Crane’s Pre-Raphaelite “Winter” in A Masque of the Four Seasons. In French’s sculpture, Death has wings, but doesn’t carry a scythe or hourglass. She merely reaches her shapely arm out to touch the sculptor’s chisel. He’s in the middle of carving a relief of the sphinx and the pyramids, a reference to Martin Milmore, for whom this monument was made. (Milmore sculpted the Sphinx at Mount Auburn.) In French’s memorial to his friend, the sculptor twists to look over his shoulder, but his gaze is not directed at Death but beyond her. Into eternity, perhaps?
Across a sun-struck meadow stands a fabulous bronze angel. Her hair is rolled back from her no-nonsense face, bound by a circlet across her brow. Her powerful wings raise behind her. Garden of Memories identifies her as another of David Chester French’s works, his Angel of Peace.
French sculpted the monumental figure seated inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also did the Minute Man who stands at North Bridge, Concord. Garden of Memories reports that he has six sculptures at Forest Hills.
Lesser known artists beautified the cemetery as well. I gravitated toward the graces: drapery clad women sculpted as permanent mourners. One of my favorites has her flowing hair wound in a partial bun, as if she’d been too distraught to fix it properly. She leans against a plinth topped by an urn, which she clasped lovingly in her arms. A number of stone women stand on tombs, a single hand pressed to their chests. One, whose direct gaze was seemingly unscarred by sorrow, hadn’t noticed the strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder. Elsewhere, Faith turned blind eyes upward as she cupped an anchor chain in her hands. Her gown, caressing every curve, slid dangerously low on both shoulders. The same was true of the bare-shouldered maiden on the Clapp tomb, who placed a floral wreath before a table reading “Life More Abundant.” Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to David Robinson’s Saving Graces, notes that these mourning statues behave “as if grief were a form of erotic surrender.”
A more demurely dressed angel with short cherubic wings held a round tablet, almost like a platter, which read, “The spirit shall return to Him Who made it.” I liked the sense of God as artist.
Forest Hills Cemetery serves as the final resting place of e. e. cummings, Anne Sexton, Eugene O’Neill, Revolutionary War generals, suffragette doctors, as well as the Red Scare martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. Susan Wilson’s Garden of Memories: A Guide to Historic Forest Hills provides six possible walking tours, covering art, history, literature, and world events. The book is for sale at the cemetery office.
The cemetery is also a lovely arboretum. The native trees tend toward pines and evergreens. In the spring, flowering cherries and apples contrast to the bare dark gray shoulders of rock poking from beneath the topsoil. When I visited, the cemetery had drifts of forsythia in bloom, masses of sunny yellow flowers lining ridges. At one point, I found myself standing beneath an incense cedar: camera forgotten, simply inhaling.
Each year, Forest Hills hosts an exhibition of contemporary sculpture. When I visited, a towering blue wishbone with a gold capstone rose to the left of the main meadow: Linda Foss Nichols’ Aeolian Conduit. I wished for enough wind to hear if the giant harp truly did sing. In its shape and coloring, the wishbone implied the raising of hearts or lifting of hopes. It was a beautiful piece, my favorite of the new works we saw.
In the past, the cemetery has offered walking tours, poetry readings, and plays based on the lives of the people buried there. Their online calendar has not been updated, so I don’t know if they have anything upcoming.
Founded in 1848, Boston’s Forest Hills is one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever visited. I owe that visit to stumbling across this dense little book in a travel store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book may be difficult to find elsewhere, but it’s very worth tracking down.
Garden of Memories opens with a historical overview that places Forest Hills in perspective. From then on, it leads you through six walking tours that range in topic from art to history to literature to world events. Forest Hills is the final resting place of e. e. cummings, Anne Sexton, Eugene O’Neill, Revolutionary War generals, suffragette doctors, as well as the Red Scare martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s also home to some of the most amazing mortuary sculpture I’ve yet seen, including not only David Chester French’s Death and the Sculptor and his Angel of Peace, but also Thomas Ridgeway Gould’s Ascending Spirit, and other poignant portrait sculpture whose creators are less well-known.
The book includes a torrent of biographical sketches and a good number of truly striking photographs. If you can’t get to Boston, this might be the next best thing.
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