“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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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?
Grave of James Joyce, Zurich, Switzerland
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
John Ruskin’s grave, chiseled into the cross is the story of his life in a series of images