Art In Granite: Headstones And Cemeteries

I walk through cemeteries for serenity and inspiration. Instead of finding them creepy, I find them inspirational.

Art in Granite: Headstones and Cemeteries
An angel at a grave in Chicago.

The art on the headstones as well as the poetry or sometimes unvarnished frankness of the eulogies intrigue me.

In addition to the basic “who” and “when” on the headstone, the text or the art add elements of the values of the family and the culture that surrounded the deceased.

The architectural style of the cemetery, the apparent restrictions or lack thereof (plastic flowers or not), within the cemeteries conveys the funereal expectations of the dominant culture that established the hallowed ground for its forebearers.

When I lived in the North End in Boston, I lived across from Copps Burying Ground Cemetery. Robert Newman was the sexton in the Old North Church. It was he who hung the lanterns on April 18, 1775 during Paul Revere’s famous ride to communicate “one if by land” and “two if by sea.”

He is not well-known, I fear, outside of Boston or Massachusetts. He was an essential part of the team for the young patriots establishing a new world in the colonies. But, I digress…

He is one of the patriots buried in Copps Burying Ground. From season to season, on the top edge of his headstone people leave coins, American flags, notes, and other mementoes. It is very moving.

Headstone of Robert Newman, patriot buried in
Copps Burying Ground, Boston.

Sometimes when I visited, there were no coins. So, I added a handful from my pocket so other visitors who came after me could experience the remarkable surprise that I experienced each time I visited and saw the trinkets and coins on his headstone.

Also, in Copps Burying Ground is a headstone that has been “re-purposed.” The front marks the passage of a child. A six-year-old girl, as I recall. Yet, on the reverse of the headstone is cursive writing that apparently was associated with another grave.

A re-purposed headstone.
The “current” information is on the opposite side.

At some time, the headstone had been unearthed, cut to a new smaller shape and carved on the opposite side.

Very thrifty of these Bostonians 150 years ago. I think we consider this very shocking. Yet, we allow graves of soldiers and family to fall into rampant disrepair and wild undergrowth. And, at Copps Burying Ground, as well, I’m sure at other cemeteries, in some areas, the deceased are stack a la bunk bed style. You can see the family descriptions on the “ends” of the steep sides of the cemetery. Trivia: Ben Affleck’s 2010 movie The Town was filmed on the streets surrounding Copps Burying Ground.

An additional photo of Copps Burying Ground, North End, Boston, MA.

In Ohio, the tomb of President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding is a huge edifice. It signifies the contemporaneous opinion of a popular president who died in office. If it were built today, it most likely would be a less formidable shrine. It is magnificent–rather shockingly so. I’m glad it was about erected in his honor 90 years ago.

The tomb of President and Mrs. Harding in Marian, OH.

View of the columns and steps leading to Harding’s tomb.

The tomb of Madame Curie, Paris.

The tomb of Napoleon, Paris.

The stairway leading to Napoleon’s tomb, Paria.

In Paris, a photo of the tomb of Madame Marie Curie, as well as the tomb of Napoleon. In the image of Napoleon’s tomb, for scale, notice the people standing in the upper-center of the photo. If you ever visit Cleveland, the tomb of Garfield in Lake View Cemetery is fashioned in a style similar to Napoleon’s. (Napoleon died 10 years before Garfield was born, but naturally Napoleon’s influence and “aura” has continued long after his death.)

Stained glass window in Garfield’s Monument,
Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland.

The Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago, had rows of headstones identifying the departed. Many from the late 1800s and forward had Slavic names. The ornate detail on some of the headstones was reminiscent to me of Ukrainian eggs.

Detail in granite at Bohemian National Cemetery.

The patterns carved into the stones convey the artistry of the crafts persons, and a point of view of the fleeting moment of life on earth.

Many headstones showed leaning or fallen crosses or trees.

A leaning cross symbolic of the sacrifices 
of Christ and the fleeting nature of life.

A leaning cross symbolic of the sacrifices of Christ and the fleeting nature of life.
Trees fallen during a storm at the Bohemian National Cemetery. (Summer 2012.) Also indicative of the fleeting nature of life--as well as the power of storms in the Midwest.

Trees fallen during a storm at the Bohemian National Cemetery. (Summer 2012.) Also indicative of the fleeting nature of life–as well as the power of storms in the Midwest.

Ironically, actual trees that had fallen in a recent storm in the cemetery replicated the symbolism and the drama of crosses on their sides as well as the frequent example of concrete molded to suggest the steadfastness of old noble trees, and presumably of the individual buried there.

Molded concrete popular in the Bohemian National Cemetery.

There were many examples of exquisite detail in the carving. One is illustrated in a tile wall accentuating an urn at a dramatic headstone.

Elegance and beauty at a grave site

This decorative artistry is in contrast to the sleek, no-nonsense flat headstones at many contemporary cemeteries.

Or, as discovered in a tiny little cemetery outside a teeny little town in Minnesota, illustrating the practical side of their Norwegian and Lutheran heritage, a brief expression of a cause of death in a headstone says,

“Died from a live wire.”

Cemeteries provide a pastoral canvas to display art, to convey the aesthetics of a culture at a point in time, and ultimately to leave many questions unanswered.

Cemeteries can inspire reflection and renewal, and can connect us to culturally instructive, brilliant art and craftsmanship.

My sincere gratitude to all the friends and families of the departed (as well as the countrymen and governments) who chose to commemorate their loved ones and leaders through the sculpture, poetry, and permanence of these headstones, tombs, and cemeteries.

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