Monday, May 26, 2008

Symbolism in Graveyard Art

The term Graveyard art sounds morbid, I know, but people have been using art to mark burial sites for thousands of years. The art demonstrates how they honor and grieve the deceased. The symbolism abounds. Ancestry Magazine had a great article about all of the different symbols seen in cemeteries and what they mean. A lion symbolizes courage, eternal guarding, while a rose stands for completion or brevity of earthly existence.

The hand is a common symbol on gravestones and other art. In some Native American cultures, it signifies a healer. In the Shaker religion, a hand holding a heart meant welcome. A hand is also a symbol of protection or power. On this gravestone from the Key West Cemetery, the finger pointing upward probably signifies a pathway to heaven. It seems to be pointing to the words "At Rest" while the words "In God We Trust" are at the base. It looks like the hand is resting on a book. The Bible would be the most likely book. So it could be demonstrating that the person is at rest in heaven, with God and trust in God as their support.

The urn stands for immortality. In the ancient Egyptian culture vital organs were placed in urns with the belief that life could be restored through them. The urn with a flame stands for undying remembrance (like the Eternal Flame by JFK's gravestone). The flowers surrounding the urn signify beauty and life and their temporary nature. The urn rests on top of a sword which is a common symbol for martyrdom or the military (often crossed). Given that the sword is facing down (towards the deceased) it probably stands for relinquishing victory, or maybe submitting to death.

Also from Key West, some humor in the cemetery. As far as graveyard humor goes, this is actually a somewhat common one. Gravestones in Texas and New Jersey carry the same message. Spike Milligan (an Irish comedian) had "I told you I was ill" (in Gaelic to make it church appropriate) engraved on his.

This is a foot stone from my own family cemetery. My grandparents received a card with this poem and had it engraved on my uncle’s foot stone. The poem (written below for easy reading) compares life to a rose that grows beautiful and strong until it follows a beam of light through a crevice in a wall. It continues on the other side, just as beautiful but out of our site.

Looking at how others grieve and memorialize their departed loved ones makes me think about how we, in the field of hospice and palliative care do the same for patients we have lost.

The Rose Beyond the Wall

Near a shady wall a rose once grew,
Budded and blossomed in God's free light,
Watered and fed by the morning dew,
Shedding it's sweetness day and night.

As it grew and blossomed fair and tall,
Slowly rising to loftier height,
It came to a crevice in the wall
Through which there shone a beam of light.

Onward it crept with added strength
With never a thought of fear or pride,
It followed the light through the crevice's length
And unfolded itself on the other side.

The light, the dew, the broadening view
Were found the same as they were before,
And it lost itself in beauties new,
Breathing it's fragrance more and more.

Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive—
The rose still grows beyond the wall,

Scattering fragrance far and wide
Just as it did in days of yore,
Just as it did on the other side,
Just as it will forevermore.

By A. L. Frink

4 Responses to “Symbolism in Graveyard Art”

David Wensel said...
May 30, 2008 at 5:43 AM

I am very excited about the new editions to Pallimed. I don't often post but enjoy reading all the pallimed blogs. I also like gravestone art. I occationally walk in a large cemetary near my home and am often struck by the beauty of the words and art. Thanks for the post and keep up the great work. I will share your post with our hospice and palliative care team here.

Amber Wollesen, MD said...
May 30, 2008 at 10:31 PM

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.
I like to walk around older, more historic cemeteries. One of my inspirations for this post was our visit to Key West and the Key West Cemetery. That cemetery is actually a tourist attraction. It's pretty interesting. A lot of character.

Christian Sinclair said...
August 11, 2008 at 8:20 PM

Here are some more extravagant representations in the graveyard. Each picture deserves it's own interpretation.

Christian Sinclair, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

Here are some more extravagant representations in the graveyard. Each picture deserves it's own interpretation.