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By Jody Rathgeb
The groundskeeper putt-putted up to me on his tractor and cut the motor. “Looking for anyone in particular?” he asked.
Actually, I was in the cemetery looking at tombstone art and epitaphs, but that’s the way it is in those places: “Who” usually takes precedence over “what.” Most cemetery visits arise because of the people buried there, and famous cemeteries base tours on their famous people, from Jefferson Davis to Marie Laveau.
The resting places, however, are also open-air art galleries, with gravestones and memorials displaying art rich in symbolism, often going beyond the traditional ones of faith (crosses, stars of David, angels, etc.). These artworks can reveal more about the person buried, more about those left behind, and more about the times in which they lived.
The heyday of memorial art in America was the late 19th century, and finding these symbols is easiest in a cemetery heavy in dates from 1850 to 1900. Gravestones of this era were truly stone (granite and marble) rather than the more modern bronze plaques, and families were eager to have the mason personalize the marker. Christian crosses are most common, and other godly symbols are numerous: angels (carrying one to the afterlife), chain links (the trinity), open books (the word of God), an anchor (Christ) and the eye of God. In addition, there are other types of symbols.
On the top: Most gravestones are either rounded or squared off at the top, but others feature drapery or urns. A draped stone represents mourning, and the urn is a reminder of the body returning to dust. Sometimes the two are combined, with drapery partially covering an urn. Another interesting top transforms the point of an obelisk into a gabled rooftop, which can be seen as either the House of God or merely a more affordable way of suggesting a mausoleum.
Growth: Plant life adorning a stone is a reminder of regeneration and transcendence of death. The yew tree is especially popular in the 19th century, and stones shaped like logs or tree trunks indicate that a life was cut short. Ivy and other vines indicate a binding together, either of two people or one person and God.
Some tree-trunk stones are very specific ones associated with Woodmen of the World, a life insurance society. These include a circular mark indicating membership.
Clues to the life: Symbols of WOW and other organizations, particularly fraternal ones (such as the Masons), provide more information about the deceased than mere names and dates. Lambs are Christian symbols, but their use on a stone often indicates that a child is buried there. Sometimes there are professional clues: musical notes, stacks of books, tools of a trade. Actual photos set into the stone were also popular for a short time.
Modern stones are generally more understated and tell us less, despite the fact that technical advances such as laser etching make personalized markers and memorials easier to achieve. According to the Monument Builders of North America, the artwork is designed on a computer and transferred to a rubber stencil, which is cut and placed on the memorial stone. The stone then goes into a room where it is sand-blasted, the stencil removed and finishing work done by hand.
With the stencil-sandblasting method, laser etching and bronze casting, almost any design is possible, yet today’s memorials follow a more subdued sensibility than those grave reminders of the past:
Remember me as you pass by.
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare thyself to follow me.
#Real #Cemeteries #CemeteryArt #CemeterySymbolism #Religion #ReligiousStudies #Death #History #Folklore #Symbols
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