A Small Stairway to Heaven

There is a weathered marble gravestone with the words, “Children of H. A. and S. A. Smith” carved into the plinth.  The small white marble gravestone is in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Washington, Indiana.  Unfortunately, the marble is so badly eroded that the names of the children, which appeared on the top of the gravestone, are no longer legible—they are lost to history.

The symbolism on the marker is badly weathered, too, but easily discernible.  The most dominate motif on the marker—open gates—is very common in American cemeteries.  In this example, the gates are attached to rounded columns with what appears to be Corinthian capitals, holding up an arch.  The arch represents a triumph of life over death, victory over the darkness of the grave.

The open gates, which are central to the Last Judgment, are open.  The gates here represent a passageway from one realm to the next.  The gates are the portal for saved souls to make their passage from the Earthly realm to the Heavenly realm upon Christ’s return.

This example also has a dove.  Many symbols found on gravestones have multiple meanings—the dove is one of those.  Several references in the Bible refer to the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:16 reads, “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him.” In Mark 1:10 the Bible says, “And Straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” Again in John 1:32, the Bible reads, “And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.”

Along with the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit, the dove is also closely associated with peace, often depicted with a sprig of an olive in its beak. This, too, originated in the Bible. After the waters receded in the story of Noah, the dove appears. Genesis 8:11, “And the dove came into him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.”   It was a sign of God’s forgiveness.

The dove, with its white color, is also a symbol of purity and innocence and for that reason is often found the tombstones of children, most likely why it was carved on this stone, in honor the Smith family children.  Thus, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, peace, and purity.

Less often seen in connection with the open gates motif is the staircase leading up to the open gates—the stairway, albeit small, to Heaven.  I have always envisioned it much longer and grandiose!

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Tragedy at Winter Quarters

The Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence, now a northern suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, was not far from where I grew up.  And depending on how I went to or came home from elementary school, the tiny cemetery was on my way.  So, I did peak in a time or two when I was a kid.

After the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith and his brother, Hiram, were killed in the Carthage jail in Carthage, Illinois, the Mormons decided, under the leadership of Brigham Young, that they needed to abandon Nauvoo, Illinois, and head further West.  In June of 1846, the band of exiles landed on the west side of the Missouri River and encamped there in what became known as the Winter Quarters.  My great-great-great grandparents, Ezra and Catherine Vincent, were part of that migration.  But Catherine was “great with child” so they crossed back over the river and settled in what later became Harrison County, Iowa.  Their daughter, Julia, was the first female child of European descent born in the county.  They stayed put in Western Iowa to farm and escaped the losses that many others experienced as they buried their loved ones along the journey to Utah.  For many, the Winter Quarters where their journey ended.

Marking the portal to many small country cemeteries are simple gates made of metal letters stretched between two metal poles. But, the gate into the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery is more like a garden gate, except there are two exceptional bronze plaques flanking the gate memorializing the nearly 600 Mormons who are buried there in unmarked graves.

The plaque to the left, depicts a cloaked mourning figure hovering over the words inscribed for passersby to read, “IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE SIX THOUSAND DEVOTED PIONEERS WHO DIED ON THE PLAINS BETWEEN 1846 – 1869.  THE BODIES OF NEARLY SIX HUNDRED OF THOSE BRAVE SOULS WERE BURIED WITHIN THIS SACRED ENCLOSURE.”

The bronze plaque to the right of the gate features a bas-relief depicting a woman leaning slightly back with both hands raised seemingly in awe with the rising sun behind her.  Her feet indicate that she floats above the Earth.  The inscription circling around the sun, reads, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE, THIS MORTAL BODY IS RAISED TO AN IMMORTAL BODY.”  Running down the side of the plaque is a Biblical passage, “THE DEAD SHALL HEAR THE VOICE OF THE SON OF GOD AND THEY THAT HEAR SHALL LIVE. JOHN V:25.  Underneath that, “FOR THEY SHALL REST FROM THEIR LABORS HERE AND SHALL CONTINUE THEIR WORKS.” DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS, SEC.: 124:86.

Both bronze plaques were the work of J. Leo (1878-1946) and Avard Tennyson Fairbanks (1897 – 1987). J. Leo and Avard Fairbanks were the sons of artist John Fairbanks and Lilly Annetta Huish.  Both sons were born in Utah.  J. Leo was a painter, sculptor, and art educator in high school and college.  Avard Fairbanks, the youngest of the eleven children in the Fairbanks family, was also a trained sculptor who started his art training at the age of 13, studying under the famed James Earle Fraser at the Art Students League of New York.  He also studied in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, The Academie Colarossi and the Ecole Moderne.  Avard had a long career as a professor of sculptor teaching at the Art Institute of Seattle, The University of Michigan, The University of Utah, and the University of North Dakota.

While teaching he also took commission and created sculptures that can be seen throughout the country, including St. Anthony’s Doughboy in Keefer Park in Idaho, the bas-relief panels on the bronze doors to the United States National Bank Building in Portland, Oregon, and a statue of George Washington for the Washington State Capitol.  Fairbanks created several statues of the Angel Moroni for Latter Day Saints temples and many other sculptures commissioned by the LDS Church, including the centerpiece of the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery in Florence—a sculpture titled, “Tragedy at Winter Quarters,” created in 1936, which depicts grief-stricken parents who have just buried their infant child.

In a circle at the base of the statue is another plaque that features what appears to be an angel in the middle with her arms outward.  On either side of her are the names of the Mormons who died and were buried in the cemetery during the Winter Quarters.  This, too, was sculpted by Avard Fairbanks, as part of a moving memorial to the Mormons who lost their lives on the journey to Salt Lake City.

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Tribute to a Fisherman


Born April 22, 1844

Died March 26, 1898

Along one of the winding avenues in the serene and park-like Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, is the statue of Emil Ambos, a well-regarded and celebrated bon vivant in his day.  Emil Louis Ambos was the son of Peter and Dorothea (Jaeger) Ambos.  Peter was a German immigrant who prospered and built a fortune as a restaurateur and chocolate confectioner, eventually going into banking, as well.  Dorothea’s family were large and owners and owned much of the land in what is now known as Germantown in Columbus.

Emil and his siblings grew up in luxury and in time inherited the family fortune.  Emil also was a success as a saloon keeper and liquor wholesaler but made the decision to retire at the ripe old age of 39, so he could spend more time following his true passions—philanthropy and fishing.  Emil donated money to the Columbus area orphanages.  But he also took a personal interest in the children—making sure that poor children had winter coats and often inviting them to his home for lavish Christmas dinners.  Often he could be seen with several children heading to a pond with him on an afternoon fishing trip.

When Emil died in 1898, he left a quirky will that satisfied both of his passions—money for orphans and $5,000 set aside for a monument to be erected over his grave that “shall be enduring, attractive, creditable and first class in all respects.” It should be, he wrote, a “life size figure of myself in fishing costume, according to a photograph taken by L.M. Baker about three or four years ago.”  John Francis Brines, a well-known sculptor from Westerly, Rhode Island, was commissioned to create a bronze statue of Emil Ambos for his monument, which was completed in 1901.

A survey document of important sculptures in the Green Lawn Cemetery by the Smithsonian described the bronze statue: “This life-sized sculpture of a mustachioed Emil Ambos depicts him sitting on a rock and wearing a coat, vest, dress shirt with a bow tie, boots, and a fishing hat. In his right hand he holds a fly rod that may appear to be broken but is actually supposed to be that way to represent it as being partially un-joined. In his left hand he holds a stringer that originally held two small mouth bass; however, one was stolen years ago so only one fish remains. Near his left foot is bait bucket with a small cup or can hanging from it. The statue is set in a way that makes it appear that Emil is looking out over a pond in the cemetery.”

The bronze sculpture was cast by the JNO Williams Foundry in New York City.  The foundry was established in 1875 by John Williams who had been an employee of Tiffany & Company who left to start his own enterprise.  The foundry worked with some of the most influential and well-known sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, such as, Louis Amateis, Karl Bitter, Gutzon Borglum, Pompeo Coppini, Daniel Chester French, Harriet Frishmuth Carl Augustus Heber, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Charles Keck, Edward Kemeys, Samuel Kilpatrick, Augustus Lukeman, Frederick MacMonnies, R. Tait McKenzie, Percival J. Morris, Allen George Newman, Charles Niehaus, Roalnd Hinton Perry, J. Massey Rhind, Andrew O’Connor, Alexander Phimister Proctor, Augustus Saint Gaudens, Anton Schaaf, Francois Tonetti, Gaetan Trentanove, J. Q. A. Ward, Olin Levi Warner, Albert Weinert, and George Julian Zolnay.

The foundry manufactured architectural pieces, such as bronze doors, for the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the United States Capitol building, as well as, sculptural pieces, such as, the tigers in front of Nassau Hall at Princeton University.

In 2019, the Smithsonian designated the statue as historically significant but in danger.  The bronze had turned green and the bronze was slowly deteriorating.  On top of that, vandals had shot the statue of Emil Ambos in the head and the fish he was holding had been stolen.  The cemetery trustees reached out to Mike Major of Urbana to restore Emil’s statue, an effort costing a whopping $30,000 and more than two and a half months of painstaking and tedious work.  Now, the statue of Emil can look out amid the gravestones of Green Lawn as a reminder of one of his passions—fishing.

NOTE: The JNO. Williams advertisements were all from an industry publication, The Monumental News, and were researched and provided by Peggy Perazzo who shares her vast collection of gravestone catalogs and resources at her Website: http://quarriesandbeyond.org/cemeteries_and_monumental_art/cemetery_stones.html.

The Quarries and Beyond Website was created by Peggy B. and Patrick Perazzo. It focuses on historic stone quarries, stone workers and companies, and related subjects such as geology. Whenever possible links of finished products are provided on the Website. There is a “Quarry Articles” section that presents articles, booklets, and links from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including the 1856 “The Marble-Workers’ Manual.” The “Cemetery Stones and Monuments” section provides references and resources, including many old monument magazines, catalogs, price lists, and a photographic tour “From Quarry to Cemetery Monuments.

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Grave Marker Erector Set







The tallest grave marker in the tiny Center Grove Cemetery, along Highway 46, is a 10 or 12-foot zinc marker.  These markers were produced and sold by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Though the company billed the markers as “white bronze” they were actually cast zinc.  The markers are distinguishable by their bluish-gray tint.

The company set up their first subsidiary in Detroit, Michigan. Others followed in Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Thomas, Ontario, Des Moines, and Chicago. Enterprising salesmen carried a catalog door-to-door with them to show customers the many styles and price ranges of the product line. In many cemeteries you can find evidence of highly successful salesmen who sold a large number of the markers. The zinc markers were produced beginning in the 1870s until the company closed shop in 1912.

These grave markers came in a wide assortment of sizes and shapes and were somewhat like grave marker erector sets. The more elaborate markers had a shell of sorts and then various panels could be attached according to the tastes of the family ordering the grave marker. In this way, each marker could be “customized” to the tastes of the individual.


This monument has a two-handle urn inside an architectural feature that is part of a spire topped with a finial. The urn is an ubiquitous funerary motif symbolizing death and mortality.  The irony of the urn being such a popular 19th Century funerary symbol is that very few people were cremated when the urn motif was at the height of its popularity.  For instance, during the eight years from 1876 until 1884, only 41 Americans were cremated.  Though the number of cremations in the United States slowly increased, by the 1950s only less 4% of our dead were cremated.  Cremation, though, has been increasing each decade: 1960–3.56%; 1970–4.59%; 1980–9.72%; 1990–17.13%; 2000–26.24%; 2010–35.93%.  Some are predicting that by 2025, almost half of our dead will be cremated.  Maybe the urn will re-emerge as a symbol for the 21st Century.

Clasping Hands

Another common motif found in American cemeteries are—clasping hands.  The clasping hands on this gravestone likely represents holy matrimony, symbolizing the holy union between a man and a woman. Often one hand of the motif is clearly the hand of the female, her cuff ruffled, with the hand on the other side depicting a shirt’s cuff barely visible from underneath a suit jacket, though neither hand displays a cuff male or female in this example.  Clasping hands can also represent the brotherhood of the union symbolizing the brethren of workers clasped in the making of something together, sharing their labor bonded by common work.  Lastly, the motif can also signify a farewell handshake life on earth and the welcome to Heaven, leaving behind what they have known on earth for the sublime pleasures of Heaven.

Cross and Crown

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 cross represents the suffering of Jesus.

Masonic symbol

Inside the shield on one of the four sides of this marker is the most recognizable emblem of the Freemasons, the square and compasses.  In this example the letter “G” appears in the middle of the emblem.  Often the emblem is seen without the letter “G”. Each component of the symbol represents a different Masonic orthodoxy, though, these are not hard and fast: The compasses represent the boundaries of wisdom a person should have the strength to circumscribe and stay within. The square symbolizes virtue in all actions, just as the expression “square deal” means treating people with fairness. The letter “G” seems to have more than one meaning.  It could possibly mean God, as in the creator of the universe; or Gimel, which is the word for the third letter of many Semitic languages.  The number three is significant to many Masonic rituals and beliefs.  Some also believe the “G” may represent geometry.

Broken Chain

In the cemetery, much of the iconography represents a life ended—the winged death’s head, the hanging bud, the broken wheel, the incomplete circle, the column that is broken. This grave marker has a chain that formed into a circle that has a broken link.  This motif essentially combines two symbols representing the end of life—the broken chain and the broken circle.  The symbolism of the broken chain dates dating to Medieval times when people believed that the soul could be held to the body by a “golden chain.” Once the chain was broken, the soul took flight and rose from the body leaving Earth and ascended to Heaven.

Broken bud or flower

The broken bud represents the flower that did not bloom into full blossom, the life that was cut short before it had a chance to grow to adulthood.  The broken flower represents an adult that did grow to maturity but has died—yet another mortality symbol.  The flower in this case is a rose, which is the universal symbol of love.

Kneeling Angel

When looking at gravestones, there is always room for interpretation.  Elisabeth L. Roark wrote an article about angels titled, “Embodying Immortality: Angels in America’s Rural Garden Cemeteries, 1850—1900”, pages 56 – 111, 2007 edition of Markers, XXIV, in which she categorized the eight most commonly found types of graveyard angels—grouped by the task they performed: soul-bearing; praying; decorating and guarding; pointing; recording; trumpeting; sword-bearing (archangel Michael); and child angels. The winged protectors served to watch over the “soul while living, removed occasions of sin and provided protection when danger threatened, interceded on their charges’ behalf, attended at death, eased the transition to the next world, conducted the soul to Heaven, and looked after the grave site and the deceased’s remains until resurrection.”  These were busy angels. In addition to those duties, the praying angels served as an intercessor conveying messages from their charges to Heaven. Though not in this example, these angels are often looking upward toward the Heavens, hands clasped together in prayer, sometimes coupled with emblems of faith, such as, anchors and crosses, often clad in toga-like clothing.

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A Bow and an Arrow


Geb. J. 28, Dec. 1829

Gest. J. 25. Marz 1873

Aged 43 Jahre 3 mo. & 27 Tag.

The small rounded-top tablet of Jakob Zondler, a German American buried in the Congressional Green Cemetery in North Bend, Ohio, displays a bow and arrow in the tympanum or top of the gravestone.  The bow appears to be loaded but while the bowstring is drawn back it is not actually in the arrow’s nock (notch). This is made clear by the fact that the fletching (fins) are outside the bowstring.  Inside the bow are the most common and widely recognized symbols for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternal society, that is, the three-chain links and the letters F, L, T, which signify the organizations motto: Friendship, Love, and Truth.

According to Stacy C. Hollander, curator of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, “These bow and arrow props were used by American Odd Fellows lodges to teach the lessons of friendship in the First Degree of the group’s rituals. The biblical story of the friendship between David and Jonathan, related in the Book of Samuel, was adapted and recounted, explaining that the bow and arrows were used by Jonathan to warn David of danger in returning to King Saul’s court. After 1882, when the group revised its degree structure, the Odd Fellows used the bow and arrows and quiver as symbols in the Second, or Love, Degree. The bow is understood as an emblem of authority, and the arrows symbolize uprightness and truthfulness.”

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Idealized Beauty



1870 – 1968



1878 – 1952

The white marble gravestone for the Cafferata Family in the New St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio, depicts a mourning figure draped across the top of the stone.  The description of a mourning figure found on a door in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and described in Sylvan Cemetery: Architecture Art & Landscape at Woodlawn, is fitting for the Cafferata monument: the “flowing figure of a grieving woman, seen… with drapery slipping down to revel a long and sinuous form, a play of curved and angular contour lines.…Her head is bowed and her face hidden from our view signifying the ravages of grief works on the harmony and beauty of the human face.”

These mourning figures are referred to as “weepers.”  Since ancient times, it has been the women who have been the ones in our families and in our society, who showed grief and shed tears over those lost to death. Like the women in ancient times, these sculpted mourning figures are depicted as standing over the graves in sorrow.  In funerary art the women often are depicted as beautiful, young, and voluptuous women wearing revealing clothing as they mourn the dead.

In David Robinson’s book, Saving Graces, which has been referenced many times in this blog, he describes these figures as “grieving women who signify how deeply the deceased is missed.  As symbolic mourners, their idealized beauty is spiritual, representing purity, passion, and commitment…But these women also serve as escorts on the journey ahead.  As designated companions in eternity, they are posted there to watch over and take care of the deceased.  Forever present, they are also forever young…these women symbolize the aspiration of eternal life, not the acceptance of death.  They may grieve, but they also comfort, and in this role, their beauty is more sensual than spiritual.”  Robinson notes that these mourning figures are “Pure on the one hand, sensual on the other, idealized yet lifelike…a very human combination of spiritual devotion and earthly desire.”

The Victorian “weeper” was usually not voluptuous and often portrayed as androgynous, dressed modestly in a diaphanous gown loosely fitted and flowing beyond her feet.

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Murder in the Courtroom!



AUGUST 21, 1868

JULY 27, 1909






The inscription on the Nathaniel Parker Willis tombstone refers to his tragic murder.  Parker Willis, the oldest son of Abner Willis and Frances Ellen Willis, was born in Crawfordsville on August 21, 1868.  He was a bright student and a fast study graduating from Crawfordsville High School with a scholarship to Wabash College which he turned down.  Instead he went into the printing business as a apprentice at the local newspaper office, the Crawfordsville Review as a compositor.  Having mastered it, he took a job as a mail carrier, but quickly changed careers again to take over his father’s photography business, which became a huge success, winning him local, state, and national prizes and accolades for his artistic photographic abilities.  Again, Parker Willis changed careers, this time setting up in Chicago where he began selling a cure for the “liquor habit.”

Unlucky in Love

While Parker Willis was in Chicago he fell in love and married but his wife of only a few weeks died.  Several years later he met and married Hattie Bell.  Reportedly, the marriage was not a happy one, but they did produce a daughter, Mary Frances, who Parker Willis adored.  The couple moved from Chicago to Cincinnati and then to Indianapolis.  The moves did not seem to help the relationship and Hattie and Parker Willis divorced.  Hattie moved from various places often secreting the daughter away from Parker Willis without telling him where she was.  Eventually Hattie took Mary Frances to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she married W. Y. Ellis.  Parker Willis stayed devoted to his daughter and worked tirelessly to secure visitation rights.  But on July 27, 1909, when he was petitioning the court to allow Mary Frances to stay with him for a two-week period, he was cut down.  Suddenly, without warning or provocation, W. Y Ellis stood up and shot Parker Willis to death in the courtroom.  In the murder trial that followed, letters from the deceased man revealed him to be a tender and devoted who longed to be able to spend time with his only child.

The Indianapolis Star, August 2, 1909, Monday Edition, page 3, gave a brief accounting of his funeral:


“Citizens Pay Last Tribute to Former Resident, who Was Shot Down In Arkansas Courtroom.

“CRAWFORDSVILEE, Ind. Aug. 1.—The body of Nathaniel Parker Willis of Indianapolis, who was murdered in the Court House at Little Rock, Ark., last Tuesday afternoon; was brought here by a special traction car Sunday, accompanied by many Indianapolis friends and relatives.  The body was taken to the lodgeroom of the Crawfordsville Commandery No. 19, Patriotic Order of Sons of America.  The lodgeroom was thrown open to the public and hundreds of people viewed the remains, which lay in a casket banked with flowers.  The public was then excluded from the lodge services, only the immediate friends and relatives and the members of the P.O.S. of A being permitted to remain.

“Marion E. Clodfelter delivered the funeral oration, in which he told of the life of Parker Willis and ended with the reciting of the story of his death.  At the conclusion of the funeral services the body was escorted to Oak Hill Cemetery, where it was interred by the side of the murdered man’s father, under the ritualistic burial ceremonies of the order.

“The pallbearers with Howard E. Griffith, Sam Billman, Parker Lofland, Jon Brown, Avery Barnes, Claud Griffith, Will Layne, Ralph Steele, O. C. Jarvis, and Samuel D. Symmes.

“The funeral procession was one of the longest ever seen in Crawfordsville, there being at least 100 carriages line.”

The tombstone in the Oak Hill Cemetery in the city of his birth,  Crawfordsville, Indiana, features a bas-relief that commemorates the love between the father and his daughter.  The commissioned bronze was created by George Julian Zolnay.

The Hungarian-born sculptor Zolnay (July 4, 1863 – May 1, 1949) created monumental works of arts including the memorial at the edge of Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee, for fallen World War I soldiers. This sculpture shows the full force and emotion of his work. A young soldier, still clutching his rifle lies in the lap of a young woman who cradles him as he dies. Her cape covers them.

Just like other great artists of the time, Zolnay was commissioned to create cemetery memorials. The seated mourning figure was commissioned by David Rowland Francis (October 1, 1850 – January 15, 1927), who served in various political posts such as, Mayor of St. Louis, Governor of Missouri, United States Secretary of the Interior, and Ambassador to Russia. Zolnay’s mourning figure in the Bellefontaine Cemetery, at St. Louis, Missouri, wears a cloak that casts a shadow over her face giving the statue a haunting look.

The sculpture Zolnay created for Confederate President Jefferson Davis (June 3, 1807 – December 6, 1889) in the Hollywood Cemetery, at Richmond, Virginia, shows a proud and unrepentant man. Davis was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point served six years in the United States Army and fought in the Mexican American War (1846–1848). From 1853 to 1857 under President Franklin Pierce, Davis served as Secretary of War. He was also elected as the Democratic U.S. senator from Mississippi. But, Davis, a believer in each states’ right to secede from the Union, was inaugurated as the President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861. He became inextricably linked to the Confederacy and a symbol of the lost cause.

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The Coded Messages of Flowers


1814 – 1877.



1823 – 1883.

The gravestone for Nathaniel and Madeline Merion can be found in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.  Atop the base is the statue of a mourning figure.  In David Robinson’s book, Saving Graces, depicts photographs of mourning figures from some of the most famous cemeteries in Europe depicting sculptures of beautiful, young, and voluptuous women often wearing revealing clothing as they mourn the dead. However, unlike her European counterparts, the Victorian “weeper” was usually not voluptuous and often portrayed as androgynous, dressed modestly in a diaphanous gown loosely fitted and flowing beyond her feet.

Often these sepulchral figures are referred to “saving graces” and often as “weepers,” and are intended to represent mourning and sorrow.  Since ancient times, women have been the ones in our families and in our society, who showed grief and shed tears over those lost to death. Like the women in ancient times, these sculptures are depicted as standing over the graves in sorrow.

Robinson identified four categories of “saving graces”–first, women completely overcome by grief, often portrayed as having collapsed and fallen limp on the grave. Second, are the women who are portrayed reaching up to Heaven as if to try to call their recently lost loved one back to Earth.  Third, are the women who are immobile, and grief stricken, often holding their head in their hands distraught with loss.  Lastly, he describes the last category of “saving graces” as the mourning figure who is “resigned with the loss and accepting of death.”  The mourning figure on the Merion monument appears to be in the last category.

In this example the figure is holding an hourglass in one hand and what looks to be a large bouquet of hydrangea in the other.  The symbolism of the hourglass is obvious—time is fleeting, as the long-running soap opera, Days of Our Lives, reminded us with their catchphrase,  “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” The meaning of that catchphrase is clear–life passes by very quickly.  Life measured by the grains of sand slip through one side of the hourglass to the other in a flash.  The hourglass symbol on a gravestone, often shown with wings, represents the same thought of time fleeting by quickly.

The hydrangea, if that is what it is, is a bit of a mystery.  In Victorian times, flowers took on significance as a way to send coded messages; this was known as floriography from the Latin combining flora—“goddess of flowers”—and graphein—“writing.”

In 1884, Kate Greenaway, a popular author and illustrator published a book titled, the Language of Flowers.  According to her book, each flower had a meaning that was conveyed to the viewer or receiver of the flower or bouquet of flowers—for instance, the weeping willow represented mourning, the white lily represented purity, the Easter lily represented the Resurrection, and so on.

The book is a nearly complete listing of flowers along with their “secret” or symbolic meanings.  On page 22, she describes the meaning behind the hydrangea as “a boaster, Heartlessness.”  So, what could that cryptic message symbolize to the viewer of the monument?  Does Death, in this coded message, represent heartlessness?

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Honoring Those Who Served

Not far outside Bloomington, Indiana, is a small country cemetery.  Like many of the cemeteries in Indiana, the stone carvers’ unique work can be found on the gravestones.  The Mt. Ebal Cemetery has two such stones marking the graves of two soldiers—one who fought in the Civil War and one who fought in World War I.



JULY 6, 1846

SEPT. 14, 1930




OCT. 20, 1844

MAY 17, 1943


The William Meadows gravestone has an inset with a bas-relief of a Union soldier carved into it.  Even without knowing what war Meadows fought in the skill and detail of the stone carver makes it clear that it was the Civil War.  Meadows stands as if he is ready to march into battle, clutching his Springfield rifle, bayonet hanging from his belt, and his Haversack and bed roll on his back.  Meadows died just five months short of his 99th birthday and the one memory he wished to preserve for all to know and see was his service to his country—carved into his gravestone as an image and recording the unit in which he served.



BORN 1889

DIED 1938


16th INF.

The bas-relief carving of the World War I soldier on the front of the gravestone most likely represents James Butcher himself.  In the sculpture, the solider appears to be marching forward possibly through water that is splashing up on both sides of him.  He is wearing the uniform of the day—steel helmet with chin strap, the brown woolen uniform with the knee breeches and carrying a rifle with the bayonet attached.  Peaking up from his shoulders is the rolled up anti-gas cape and loosely hanging around his neck is a respirator made necessary by the gas that was used during WW I.  The determined look on his face expresses a soldier ready to take the fight to the enemy.

On this day, we give thanks to all those soldiers who served and protected America and most especially to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

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Neo-Classical Angel

The neo-classical angel on this white marble gravestone in the Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio, looks downward with a sorrowful expression as she leans against the torch, the flames curling at its base.   The beautifully carved bas-relief angel is on a gravestone from the 1850s.  Unfortunately the name of the deceased is difficult to discern.

The flame on the gravestone is symbolic of the soul.  The inverted torch represents a life that has been extinguished.  Angels are popular images found in cemeteries throughout the world.  The English word “angel,” is derived from the Greek word “aggelos” meaning messenger or herald.  Here the angel brings the news that a life has been lost.

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