Tag Archives: graveyard iconography

The Evolution of the Death’s Head

Originally, the Puritans in America forbade any decoration on their gravestones.  The earliest markers that still exist show only names and occasionally the death date.  Later, the prohibition eased to the point that ornamentation on gravestones were okay, as long as the churches remained plain.  Carvers began to adorn the crests of grave markers with skulls.

The earliest stone here shows a blank-eyed round death’s head, a winged skull with clenched teeth beneath a simple pair of crossed bones.  The skull’s nose is indicated by a tiny triangle and the contours of bone by incised curves.

The second stone has a more heart-shaped skull with eyebrows and what looks like a mustache.   It’s no more realistic than the first, but the wings look as if they could have been carved from life.

John Palfrey’s stone might date from between those two, but I’m putting it later since the carving is more detailed.  I like the disk that crowns the skull, flanked by its waves and coils.  The eye sockets have a more realistic shape, but the arched eyebrows are attached to the nose triangle.

The next two stones are decorated with soul effigies rather than grinning skulls.  In both cases, the faces are staring and don’t seem to be having a lot of fun.   In place of necks, the heads have triumphantly upraised wings.  Their epitaphs both begin “Here lyes Buried the (or ye) Body,” but the sense is that the soul has flown away.

I’m not sure how to place the two figures that follow, but I suspect that they are later, since the faces seem to be individualized and more life-like than the earlier stones. The first is headed “Memento Mori”: Remember Death, sometimes translated as Remember You will Die.  The epitaph continues “The Remains of Cap Edward Marrett are here interred.”  I like the hair plastered down to the head of Captain Marrett’s effigy, in addition to its narrowed eyes and pinched mouth.

Thomae Marsh Armigeri’s stone has a Latin inscription beneath an angelic effigy with a be-ringed wig.  His eyes seem to frown from the stone, but his face is unlined. The wings are held awkwardly.  If I saw this thing flying at me, I’d be frightened.  It, more than the others here, personalizes the dead man.  I wonder what his story is and why he was so grumpy.

The next stone is in a different style, but I wanted to include it as an example of a portrait stone.  The epitaph curving above it says, “We fall to rise. We die to live.”  Still a deeply Christian sentiment, but amidst the acceptance of death is the hope for a better world.  The bust’s mouth remains an unamused line, but his eyebrows and hairline have personality.

I love the cherub faces atop the final stone.  The wings have a profusion of feathers, so much so that they almost look like Elizabethan neck ruffs.  The mouths and noses seem more lifelike than anything we’ve seen yet — and the hair almost seems to have a life of its own.  The eyes are still blank and clouded, but it seems that life has only recently departed.

All of these stones come from the Old Town Burying Ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard Square.  It will be this week’s Cemetery of the Week.

Gravestone carving isn’t my special interest, so I welcome correction in the comments below. I’d love to learn more.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Happy

One of the things that makes me happiest when I poke around graveyards is to see the connections between peoples in various different locations. Like any other facet of human behavior, fashions sweep through graveyards. Suddenly people from coast to coast (and all around the world) are adorning their grave monuments with the same icon.

In this case, I choose to focus on urns. The urn hearkens back the Roman practice of cremating their dead outside of their cities, then collecting the ashes up into urns which were then stored inside the family tombs that lined every road in and out of their towns. The urn became a motif in American cemeteries (and European as well) after the rediscovery of the intact Roman tombs lining the roads into Pompeii.

The urns above show the breadth of the motif from Boston to New Orleans to the Motor City throughout California. Their earliest incarnations were scratched into slate but progressed through marble into granite, zinc, and iron. They changed from the shallowest reliefs to three-dimensional sculpture to bronze receptacles where human ashes are once again stored.

I’ll write more about both cremation and Pompeii this week, but for now I’ll leave you with links to the cemeteries above:

Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts

Lafayette Cemetery #1, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, California

Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, Burbank, California

The The Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco

My visit to Glen Rock

Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan

Bendle Cemetery’s zinc monument 

A take-along guide to cemeteries

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and IconographyStories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography by Douglas Keister

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I snatched this book off the shelf as soon as my eye landed on it. It has long surprised me that there was no comprehensive dictionary of the symbols found on gravestones. I know the topic is a complicated one, in that the same symbol can mean different things at different times — or even at the same time in different locations. Richard E. Meyer’s introduction acknowledges these difficulties, while casting headstones themselves as a cipher for the person buried beneath. It’s a wonderful image with which to open the book.

Douglas Keister, illustrator of Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity has become the leading American photographer of gravestones. His work appeared in American Cemetery magazine’s “Tomb of the Month” feature, documenting the resting places of the famous and infamous. Photos included in this book have been recycled from other publications, but it’s nice to have them gathered together in one place.

“A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography” is the truer part of the title. The book’s format (tall and skinny) encourages the reader to take it along to the graveyard, the way you’d take a birding book to the park. However, while the color plates make for lovely viewing, they add to the weight you’ll be toting. In addition, the unfortunate page design doesn’t lend itself to identifying the symbol engraved on the stone before you. Too often, photographs appear at the fold of the page, so you really have to crack the book open to examine them. It makes it difficult to tell a sunflower from a daisy.

Still, there are an immense number of photographs in this book, often three to a page, so there is much on which to feast your eyes. There’s food for thought as well. In the opening section I learned about the significance of tumulus graves and their link to ancient warriors. I wished for a specific citation I could have followed up on, but maybe that’s just me.

The errors in the book — and of course there must be some in a volume of this breadth — are worth mentioning. The caption beside the photo of John Keats’ headstone in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome says simply “Poet.” That much is obvious, since the clearly visible epitaph reads, “This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English poet…Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I’m nervous that Keister didn’t realize he was recording Keats’ grave as he snapped the photo, printed it, chose it for the book. If he missed something so widely known, can he be trusted on the finer points?

As I followed up on that train of thought, I discovered an unraveling string. The lyre adorning Keats’ gravestone isn’t listed in the index, but the entries mentioned are interesting. The main listing differentiates a lyre from a harp as “more playfully designed.” After some beautiful Chinese folktales, the lyre in Western mythology is summarized as “one of Apollo’s attributes.” No mention is made that the lyre is chosen to adorn poets’ graves in specific reference to the Greek god who invented poetry. Often lyres on headstones exhibit one or more broken strings, as in the case of Keats’ stone, to signify that the poet’s voice has been silenced. Seems to me those might be things the casual graveyard wanderer would like to know.

All that aside, this is a lovely little book, stuffed with photos and intriguing tidbits. Consult it to add whimsy to your wanderings, but it’s not the final word.

Amazon link to buy Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

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Beautiful gravestone motifs

Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish GravestoneGraven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an indispensable little book this is! It collects 240 full-color photographs of motifs on Jewish gravestones, breaking them down into family symbols, workman’s tools, Talmudic references, etc. Like an encyclopedia, it defines each symbol, gives a reference from the Bible or Jewish lore, and remarks on the differences in symbolism from one community to the next. The artistry of tombstone carvers has never, in my experience with cemetery books, been as completely or as beautifully documented as this.

Inside are gravestones that depict Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, candelabra which were believed to ward off grave robbers, hands feeding the charity box, skeletons with scythes, Jewish cherubim, lions, monkeys, fantastic birds, even a scorpion (which the author can’t explain). The variety is startling and impressive.

My only disappointment with the book is the size of some of the photos. A two-page layout demonstrating the blessing hands motif contains 28 pictures, each less than two inches square!

Throughout the book, the photographs themselves are wonderfully reproduced, even the tiny ones. The printing captured the spectrum of lichen, as well as the ivy and grasses that surround the stones. The stones themselves seem rough enough to touch. The sunshine looks as if it’s warmed the stones. The occasional shadow looks chilly.

Chaim Potok’s foreword explores the second commandment (“No graven images”) and its relationship to the creatures here displayed. He grounds his discussion in passages from the Talmud and Jewish authorities (whom I wish he had named), saying that there was never any consensus on what constituted an image. Perhaps tombstone carvings are permissible because they are in low relief, rather than three-dimensional?

Potok also reviews the history of Jewish grave markers. The first tombstone is mentioned in Genesis, when Jacob places a monument at Rachel’s grave.

Schwartzman uses the centuries of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries to detail the persecution Jews have suffered. Many of the communities recorded on tombstones in this book have ceased to exist. I am glad these beautiful carvings were recorded before they too disappear.

Occasionally you can find copies on Amazon: Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone

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