Variations on a boat theme

Fairview Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Iowa

Fairview Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Iowa

The Western White Bronze Company of Des Moines, Iowa, and the other companies that produced zinc funeral monuments made many variations.  The popular symbols came in multiple forms.  The various symbols could be bolted in place by special order much the same way that an erector set is bolted together.  Sometimes a symbol was available in a bas-relief and sometimes it could be purchased as a statue in the round.  Others such as this boat could be found by itself or with a dove ascending over the boat.

Since ancient times, the imagery of the boat to ferry a soul from one realm to the other has been a part of the symbolism of death.  In Greek mythology, the River Styx wrapped its way around Hades (the Underworld) nine times.  To cross from this life to the next, the dead had to pay with a coin to be ferried from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead.  The toll was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay Charon, the ferryman.  It was said that if the dead person did not have the coin, he was destined to wander the shores of the River Styx for a century.  The “boat” was one of the images found on Victorian graves to represent the crossing from one world to the next.

In the case of the marker above, it is not Charon ferrying the soul to the other side but a winged angel, whose way is lit by a torch radiating light on the front of the boat.  In the marker below a dove is added.  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 in to 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.

Woodland Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa

Woodland Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa

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