Louis Legrand (1863-1951)
One unseen amid the throng
Drew near with purpose fell,
And lo! the orange-flowers were changed
To mournful asphodel.
Five sabbaths walk’d the beautiful
Her chosen lord beside,
But ere the sixth illumed the sky
She was that dread One’s bride.
Mrs. Charles N. Cadwallader (In Memoriam), Lydia H. Sigourney
All Must Submit to the King of Terrors, But That Is No Reason to Look So Grave.Remember friend as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you will surely be
Prepare thyself to follow me. —Common epitaph from the nineteenth century.
I have always been fascinated by cemeteries and graveyards—not out of any real morbid sense, but often an aesthetic and even scientific curiosity. The town I grew up in seemed to have more dead than living. Wandering around the edges of farmer’s fields turned up long-forgotten family graveyards. The iron fences had been sold off in a WWII scrap drive, and cows now wandered freely among the graves. If it weren’t for the names chiseled on stone, those people would be long forgotten—anyone who remembered where they lay was was now themselves, dead.
In graveyards, we find deliberately chosen monuments to everyday people who have gone before: reflective of the period of history they were wrought in and the values of those who erected them, with an elaborate symbolic language all their own. Of course, humans have been custodians of their dead ever at least since the first Neanderthal tossed a flower in a long ago burial, but with historical cemeteries, we have it all laid out for our perusal: names, exact dates and the amazing realization that tombstone art, like anything else, is susceptible to fads.
Until well into the nineteenth century, where individual expression started to become more prevalent, gravestones in American cemeteries generally follow one of a few types designs that had a fairly strict progression through time.
The earliest gravestones were populated by grim reminders of the inevitability of death: skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses. These reflected a heavy Puritan influence: life was nasty, brutish and short and only a select few would make it to heaven. Everyone else was a sinner in the hands of an angry God. Often, stones with this type of motif mention something blunt like “Here lies the body”—there was no softening of the blow of death. Puritans were wary of succumbing to idolatry so the grim reminder of death was the only acceptable form of grave decoration.
As America accepted more and more settlers of varied backgrounds, the Puritans gradually lost their stranglehold on gravestone iconography, and by the end of the seventeenth century, the stark and disturbing skeletal renderings gradually lost their edge by the addition of wings.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the winged death’s heads had gradually phased into a regular human face, with wings (as seen above). This too reflects the sentiments of the time—there was hope of some kind of afterlife for the deceased and mentions of corrupted bodies gradually gave way to the gentler concept of “mortal remains”.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the main motif underwent a another adjustment. The vacant and slightly distressed looking human face gradually gave way to a winged cherub, effectively removing the sting from death. During this time period, burials had begun to move from the dank and overcrowded churchyard settings into a more rural, garden-like atmosphere with the introduction of the cemetery park in the 1830’s. Even the linguistic shift from “graveyard” to “cemetery” indicates the focus was now less on the rotting body and more on memorializing the departed soul. The language on these stones now says something like “In Memory of” or “Sacred to the Memory of”.
Also popular at this time was a completely new motif: the weeping willow and urn (above). The association with weeping is certainly appropriate for a funereal setting, but the willow also symbolized the gospel, since no matter how many branches are cut off, the tree remains whole, reflecting the kinder, gentler form of Christianity that had come to replace the dour hellfire and damnation of the Puritans a few generations back. The above example is somewhat transitional between the two types, as later willow and urn stones would have a square shoulder instead of the rounded one seen until now. One significant reason for the change in style was that many of these willow and urn graves were actually cenotaphs, empty graves for someone lost far from home; at sea or in a war, but gradually the style came to be favored over the others.
Of course these stylistic attributes are best seen in the longest settled-areas in America, especially New England, but almost any cemetery of a decent age will probably show willow and urn designs marking the oldest graves. In another installment, I will describe the iconographic changes taking place in the Victorian period and what the various symbols you can find in a typical cemetery represent about their permanent inhabitants.
MEMENTO MORI on We Heart It - http://weheartit.com/entry/51475884/via/RodrigoTenebrum