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

Monday, May 26, 2008 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 4

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Top 10 Palliative Care Films

We hope over the upcoming weeks and months you will enjoy learning and exploring the more "creative" side of palliative medicine! As a way to get things rolling we thought it'd be fun to spend some time thinking about our top 10 palliative minded films. As you may imagine, the decision was tough. There are actually a lot of movies out there that deal with things like death, grief, mortality, etc. We tried to have each film cover a particular unique theme. We'll undoubtedly spend time in future posts exploring these great films.

Please comment if you have used these in teaching, or there are films you think should be in the top 10, or if you think the list should be reordered.

For now, here's Pallimed: Arts & Humanities top 10 palliative care films:

Plot summaries courtesy of the Internet Movie Database; Titles link to the film preview
10. One True Thing (A career woman reassesses her parents' lives after she is forced to care for her cancer-stricken mother.)

9. The Fountain (Spanning over one thousand years, and three parallel stories this is a story of love, death, spirituality and the fragility of our existence in this world)

8. Big Fish (A story about a son trying to learn more about his dying father by reliving stories and myths his father told him about himself)

7. Life as a House (When a man is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he takes custody of his misanthropic teenage son)

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body; only his left eye isn't paralyzed)

5. The Sea Inside (The real-life story of Spaniard Ramon Sampedro, who fought a 30 year campaign in favor of euthanasia and his own right to die)

4. On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying (Four part PBS series by journalist Bill Moyers that focuses on end-of-life care in the US)

3. Two Weeks (In this bittersweet comedy, four adult siblings gather at their dying mother's house in North Carolina for what they expect to be a quick, last goodbye)

2. The Doctor (Jack Mckee is a doctor with it all: he's successful, he's rich, and he has no problems...until he is diagnosed with throat cancer)

1. Wit (A renowned professor is forced to reassess her life when she is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer)

Saturday, May 17, 2008 by Amy Clarkson · 34

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it.
Robert Motherwell

As this is the first post of the Pallimed: Arts & Humanities Blog, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell all of you why we feel this topic important. Why art and palliative care? What do the two topics really have to do with each other?

First of all, themes common to palliative care such as death, grief, and chronic illness are also common themes in the arts. People have been getting sick and dying since the beginning of time and they have been making art to memorialize the occasion for almost as long. It seems like such a great fit to talk about these topics together.

In palliative care, we deal with (and experience) a lot of emotions: anger, sadness, frustration, relief, sometimes even joy. The arts are a great outlet for emotions. Many people journal or write stories to deal with emotional issues. We use art therapy to help our patients deal with their illnesses. As lovers of the arts, we see writing this as a little bit of self-care (an emotional outlet for us). We hope that reading this blog is a little bit of self-care for you, the reader, as well.

Just writing this will be a great learning experience for us. We hope you will learn something and then teach us something new through your comments. We’re definitely not art experts, just interested palliative care doctors, so we’re open to hear if you agree or disagree with the things we write. Ultimately, we hope this builds your interest in palliative care and the arts so you can share your enthusiasm with those around you.

Thursday, May 1, 2008 by Amber Wollesen, MD · 0