The Pyramid: Monumental Architecture

This is my 500th post. So, to commemorate the occasion, I wanted to write about something monumental. When it comes to funerary sculpture and architecture, nothing is more monumental than the pyramid.  The Egyptians knew how to bury their dead, especially when it came to burying the pharaohs.

After the French and British occupations of Egypt, there was a renewed interest in Egyptian architecture and symbolism.  The Egyptian symbol that is most commonly found in American cemeteries is the obelisk.  And the most famous obelisk in America is the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

But the pyramid is by far the epitome of Egyptian funerary architecture, the tomb of the pharaohs.  The oldest pyramid is the Pyramid of Djoser built over four thousand years ago from 2630 BC to 2612 BC.  The largest of the Egyptian pyramids is the Pyramid of Khufu at Giza built between 2589 and 2566 BC. This later pyramid was the inspiration for many of the pyramids found in American cemeteries, three of which can be found in the Green-Wood Cemetery at Brooklyn, New York, which I will write briefly about today: The Van Ness-Parson Monument, the Henry Bergh Mausoleum, and the Benjamin Stephens pyramid mausoleum.

The Henry Bergh Pyramid:

The pyramid mausoleum of Henry Bergh was built in 1888. It is an imposing structure. As far as mausoleums go, it is relatively unadorned except for the winged globe surrounded by two rearing snakes—the uroei—above the doorway. In this example, there are three sets of falcon wings that are a symbol of the king, the sun, and the sky. The globe represents the Egyptian god, Horus. The uroei, snakes, are waiting to strike. They symbolize the king’s ability to ward off evil spirits. On the entryway of the mausoleum is a large round bronze insignia of the ASPCA which displays a man lifting a club to beat an horse.  An angel comes between the man and the horse interceding to stop the cruelty.


The Benjamin Stephens Pyramid:

The Stephens pyramid, built in 1890, is very much like the Bergh pyramid in that the only ornamentation is above the doorway. Again, the winged globe is carved onto the lintel. The Stephens pyramid, though, while having the same base width is taller.


As Elizabeth Broman writes in her article, “Egyptian Revival Funerary Art”, Markers XVIII, 2001, pages 30-66, “The Bergh pyramid is angled lower and has a block-like shape that seems more firmly planted on the ground. The Stephens’ sides are more steeply pitched and it presents a loftier appearance because there is more surface area between the top of the lintel and the pyramidion: it appears to be reaching skyward, whereas the Bergh monument seems to have a solid, heavy center of gravity that is firmly planted in the ground.”


The Van Ness-Parsons Pyramid

This pyramid was built in 1931 for Albert Parsons. It is broader than the Bergh and the Stephens pyramids and is adorned with Christian and Egyptian symbolism.


The Egyptian and Christian symbolism share an uncomfortable coexistence.  The mausoleum displays images of the ancient pharaonic religion including the sphinx, the winged globe, and the uroei.  It also displays Joseph holding a lamb and Mary holding the baby Jesus. Many Christians objected to Egyptian motifs and their non-Christian origins.  To soften the impact, designers often included Christian symbolism.  In this case, however, the designer of the mausoleum believed there was a “long-standing identification between Americans, Christianity, and ancient Egypt.”


Note: For a more complete analysis of the Egyptian Revival architecture found in the Green-Wood Cemetery, check out Elizabeth Broman’s article, “Egyptian Revival Funerary Art”, Markers XVIII, 2001, pages 30-66. In her article she writes not only about the pyramids but other Egyptian Revival-style mausoleums found in Green-Wood.

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Cross and the Crown

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

The Gothic-style Miller family monument in the Glendale Cemetery at Akron, Ohio, is inscribed, “Be Thou Faithful Unto Death and I Will Give Thee a Crown of Life”. That message is further reinforced by the mourning figure atop the monument of a woman holding a crown in her hands.


The crown is a symbol of glory and victory over death.  The reward awaits in Heaven where the victor will receive a crown of victory.

The crown symbol is found again resting on top of a cross found on each of the individual family headstones. The cross and crown symbols are green oxidized copper bolted to each of the family members’ headstones.


The cross represents the suffering of Christ.

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Reach for the sky

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

This small monument is dedicated to the memory of a infant girl, the epitaph too faint and eroded to read clearly, is in the form of a bed.  The covers are pulled aside and the pillow still has an indentation where the little girl’s head rested.  The side of the tombstone shows a small child, surrounded by swirling clouds.  In this tableau she is looking toward the rays of light, representing Heaven, as she lifts her arms up reaching toward the lit sky.


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Eternal Sleep

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The most poignant and tender gravestones are those for children.  In the 1850s, the mortality rates for children under one year, were estimated at over 200 deaths per thousand, with much higher mortality rates for children under 5.

Here, is the gravestone of Mary, her barely visible and the other details originally carved into the gravestone eroded and unreadable.  It is clear, however, that this gravestone commemorates the death of a little girl.  She is seen represented lying down, her arm underneath her head forming a pillow on which she can sleep.  Directly under the sculpture of the little girl, are three poppies carved into the upper portion of the pedestal.


In cemetery symbolism the poppy represents eternal sleep.  Just as it was portrayed in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, the main characters lie down in a field of poppies where they fall into a deep sleep.  That same imagery is used here.  Mary falls into an eternal sleep over a sprig of three poppies.


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Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California

The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol that has been found in early catacomb burials.  The anchor was used by early Christians as a disguised cross.  The anchor also served as a symbol of Christ and his anchoring influence in the lives of Christians.  Just as an anchor does not let a moored boat drift, the anchoring influence of Christ does not allow the Christian life to drift.


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From Monumental to Simplicity

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I. O. O. F.) is a fraternal organization that formed in England in the 1700s as a service organization. The American association was founded in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 26, 1819. According to the I.O.O.F. Website, “Thomas Wildey and four members of the Order from England instituted Washington Lodge No. 1. This lodge received its charter from the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows in England.”

Members of the Odd Fellows, like many other society members, choose to be buried in common burial grounds.   There are several Odd Fellows graveyards in the United States.  In other cases a portion of the cemetery is dedicated to the lodge members, as is the case in the Glendale Cemetery at Akron, Ohio.  Here a large monument was built to honor the members of the fraternal organization.  Behind the screens are the names of the members who belong to the lodge.  Members are buried in a space close to the monument reserved for Odd Fellows members.

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

Glendale Cemetery, Akron, Ohio

The main symbol of the Odd Fellows is the three links of the chain which can been on top of the monument or on this simple metal marker that is placed next to one of the members buried in another part of the cemetery.  Within the three links are many of the markers display three letters,  F  L  T, which signify the organizations motto: Friendship, Love, and Truth.  This marker, however, is simple only displaying the links.

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Glass Angel

Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

This stained-glass window from the Neo-classical Doric style Loring Family mausoleum in the Rosehill Cemetery at Chicago, Illinois, depicts an angel in contemplative prayer.

The stained-glass window is ripe with Christian symbolism. It is always difficult to look at a piece of artwork like this and know whether the sun is setting or rising. The setting sun represents death—darkness. If the sun in this scene is a rising sun it represents Christ’s resurrection.

The angel with resplendent green wings and golden robe symbolizes God’s messenger.  But angels also have the double role as the guide to Heaven. Here the angel looks to Heaven while his hands are clasped together in prayer. Praying hands represent his pious devotion.

Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois

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