Where All Saints and Sinners Rest

“The snow rounded over and built up each smooth and even elevation, with its cross of stone or metal, its small monument adorned with medallions and inscriptions. No soul was to be seen or heard, the quiet remoteness and peace of the spot seemed deep and unbroken in more than one sense. A little stone angel or cupid, finger on lip, a cap of snow askew on its head, stood among the bushes, and might have passed for the genius of the place — the genius of a silence so definite that it was less a negation than a refutation of speech.”

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (Hans Castorp visits the Davos cemetery)

I have always loved cemeteries. The atmosphere of graveyards really suits me, soothes me, calms me and elevates my soul. Walking through a cemetery feels like touching the veil between Here and There. Funerary art captured my imagination already when I was very little and when I visited the graves of our dead loved ones on 1 November in Poland. And when I was a teenager trying to educate myself about the history of art, the first sculpture that left me breathless was “The Night” by Michaelangelo, which adorns the sarcophagus of Giuliano de Lorenzo de’Medici in Florence.

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Michaelangelo, Night

We are not attuned to mortality as we used to be in the old times.  It is not customary to decorate our graves and tombstones with skeletons, skulls, hourglasses, scythes or other memento mori signs any more. We do not wish to be reminded of the inevitable end. Not so long ago death was an inextricable part of life with short life expectancy and high infant mortality rate. Nowadays public displaying of corpses is a less and less common practice. The ashes are euphemistically referred to as “cremated remains.”

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I adore the subtle imagery that can be encountered at cemeteries: the weeping willows, cypress trees, clasped hands, draped urns, angels, gates, open or closed books, broken columns, broken flower stems, not to mention all kinds of pagan symbols that very much appeal to me. I do not draw a distinction, though, between pagan and Christian, for the simple reason that to me they form a continuum, having sprung from the same archetypal source. I have recently purchased a book that has whetted my appetite for funerary imagery but sadly has not satisfied it fully. Here it is:

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It focuses predominantly on the Christian imagery, and works well as a lexicon, having one decisive flaw of lexicons, though: it does not delve deep into the subject matter and does not show any connections between the subsequent entries. Having said that, I did enjoy the book, especially the beautiful images and photographs that were all taken by the author himself. I also appreciated his irony and sense of humour, as is evident in the following three passages:

“It appears as if the designer of the uniquely funerary Pizzati mausoleum ordered one of everything from a mausoleum supply catalog: blind windows, an angel, a draped urn, an alpha/omega emblem, medieval turrets, garlands, stars, and a cross. All envelop the remains of Salvatore Pizzati, who is spending eternity inside his mausoleum with his favorite rocking chair.”

“The range of modern architecture extends from tilt-up concrete buildings, to massive glass, steel, and stone structures that look like they belong on a Star Wars set. In the cemetery some of these structures are very utilitarian looking while others seem to be ready to blast off from Earth.”

“John Matthews (1808-1870) was known as the “soda fountain king” for his popularization of the soda fountain. … On his catafalque are the faces of his daughters… and his wife… Prostrate and almost melting into his sarcophagus, Matthews looks up at reliefs carved into the column capitals that depict events in his life – leaving England for America, pondering the idea of soda water, and finally being crowned for his achievements.”

The title of the book is quite brilliant as well: nowhere else as in the cemetery do we think so much and try to guess who the people were whose graves we see; what were their life stories? The story behind the famous Merello Volta monument at Greenwood-Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, showing a woman in her wedding dress dying on the steps has remained largely unexplained although there has been some evidence uncovered that she was a rich girl murdered by one of her family’s servants.

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Cemeteries can not only be likened to books of symbols but also to encyclopedias of architectural styles. Obviously, the style that is most closely associated with cemeteries is the Gothic one. The following quote got me thinking:

The cracks, joints, and attachments are a magnet for ivy, nesting animals, and moisture. It is rare indeed to see a Gothic structure more than a few decades old that doesn’t have some sort of ongoing structural maintenance problems.

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The Gothic Revival Dexter Memorial at Spring Grove Cemetery (via Wikipedia)

Perhaps Gothic tombs are living emblems of the transience of time, of the inevitable crumbling of all structures that we falsely hope to have erected for eternity. Overpopulation should make us ponder whether the days of the triumph of form over function in the funerary art are not inevitably over. Enter the age of cyber cemeteries. But will they inspire the same reverence as the “real” ones?

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Grave of James Joyce, Zurich, Switzerland

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William Holland’s tomb at Kensal Green Cemetery, in London, England: the sarcophagus is supported by eight griffins and richly decorated with flora and fauna, torches and other decorations

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 John Ruskin’s grave, chiseled into the cross is the story of his life in a series of images

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21 Responses to Where All Saints and Sinners Rest

  1. I’ve always found cemeteries very peaceful and beautiful places. Namaste _/l\_

  2. i abhor them but enjoyed your take and am open to changing my mind. Sure you weren’t born in November??? 🙂 I do grief counseling and am pretty good with this work, but personally i still have demons to conquer … We teach what we need to learn!

    • Haha, really, so bad? Well, I must say I think I would not like to live next to one, I like to dose this energy. I used to live in the old town in Danzig, Poland, near a cathedral which housed many graves and in an old town house on the place which remembers the war… It was eerie at times, to say the least, but also fascinating.

  3. I always found the symbolism on gravestones fascinating as well– great read !!!

  4. shreejacob says:

    Oo..really interesting! I haven’t visited a single cemetery in my life!! I’m not sure if the ones here are any where as interesting as the ones in the West though…
    Hindu’s are cremated…the Muslim burial grounds are really very simple..and there aren’t that many Christian grounds here. The Chinese ones’ though have some interesting variety (have seen them from the roads when the car passes them by)….

  5. Don says:

    I too have memories as a child of walking through the cemeteries. My Dad often did this and it’s strange how those memories are often awakened whenever I pass one. I was also deeply struck by the silence which was often broken by the beautiful soft and melodic sounds of Turtle Doves.I haven’t gone in to one for a long time now. Perhaps I should. I just loved those images presented in that book. My imagination ran wild. Great post, Monika – thank you.

  6. Selena says:

    Lovely article. Appropriate for the time of year. Thank you.

  7. Amazing post!! I can totally relate. Earlier this year I visited New Orleans and while I was there took a walk around the Lafayette Cemetery, with the weathered above-ground crypts. It was eerie, exhilarating, and fascinating all at the same time. Thanks for bringing that memory to the surface. Cheers!

    • I’ve heard of this cemetery – I really hope I’ll visit it one day. I managed to pay my respects to James Joyce today, actually. A very nice grave with a statue of him sitting on a bench in a small garden, reading a book.

  8. ptero9 says:

    As a young child I felt cemetaries to be creepy. I am tempted to explain it as not having the ability to distinguish between what I felt and what is real. I felt the presence of the dead there even if it was only my imagination. Perhaps it wasn’t though…I was visiting the cemetary in my hometown in NY a few years back, and expected to remember where the different branches of my family were buried, but couldn’t find my recently deceased grandparents as it was the first visit to their graves because I had moved to Oregon while they were still alive.
    I wandered around for quite sometime getting pretty frazzled. Something made me stand still and be quiet, and after a minute or two, I just started walking and sure enough was led to my grandparents graves.
    Shortly after moving out to Oregon, while living in Portland, there was a large cemetary within walking distance of my apartment. It was there that I became fond of strolling through the cemetary reading the headstones and as you said Monika, wondering and imagining the people buried there and their lives.
    And the art on some headstones is quite beautiful. I have a friend who does headstone markings and travels around the world collecting rubbings from all over. I am not sure if he has a book out that is in print, but have seen his collection.
    Great post again Monika!

    • I think it was not your imagination – the spirit world is real. I am not posing as an expert. I am fascinated by cemeteries, as I wrote, but I do not wish to visit them too often or live near them, to be honest. The subject came to me while rereading The Magic Mountain, which I quote at the beginning.

      • ptero9 says:

        Yes, I agree, the spirits are real. I’d even go so far as to say it was my aunt bunny, whose presence I have often felt since her death when I was 7. But, I try not to sound too crazy, but why is that? 🙂
        Thanks for reminding me it’s okay to go out on a limb 🙂

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