The Ubiquitous Urn

Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia

According to James Deetz and Edwin S. Dethlefsen, in their groundbreaking article, “Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow” the willow first made its appearance in cemeteries in the early 18th century.  The motif represented a break from the stark and cold reminders that death would bring that the Puritans carved into their gravestones—flying death’s heads, skulls and crossbones, and gravedigger’s equipment. In addition to the grim reminders of the inevitability of death Puritan gravestones often accompanied the haunting imagery with blunt words such as, “Here lies the body.” Nothing subtle there. The willow and the urn, however, represented a more sentimental view of death. There was a softening of Puritan views during the Great Awakening and the beginning of the Romantic Era.

Village Cemetery, Bar Harbor, Maine

Often the willow and urn is accompanied with words like, “In memory of” or “Sacred to the memory of”. This represented a softer approach. Like many symbols found in the cemetery, they can have multiple meanings, or there can be disagreement about the meaning of the motif—the Willow and urn is no exception. Christians saw the ability of the tree to live seemingly no matter how many of the branches were cut from the tree as a symbol of immortality. Others, however, suggest that the willow and urn predate Christianity to Roman times. The urn was used by Romans to store cremated remains and the willow was associated with the Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. Combined they represent the soul’s journey from the Earthly Realm to the Heavenly Realm. This design coincided with a neo-classical revival that took place mid-18th Century in America.

Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia

The monument in the photograph is of a draped urn.  This particular urn is a dramatic example of this symbol, cast in bronze and freestanding.  For the most part, the urns are found on top of columns and mausoleums, ornaments.  The draped urn represents the clothing of the deceased being shed to move from the Earthly realm to the Heavenly realm.

Like most funerary symbols, even nuances make a difference to their meaning.  For instance, if the drape on the urn is fringed, the drapery represents a shroud symbolizing sorrow, the motif that represents a veil that separates the Earth and Heaven, life and death.

City Cemetery, Davenport, Iowa

The urn with a flame emanating from the top, symbolizes eternal remembrance and religious zeal.

Franklin, Indiana

The urn was an almost ubiquitous 19th Century symbol found in nearly every American cemetery.  Often, the urn tops a monument—sometimes depicted with a wreath looped around it.  The wreath, according to Tui Snyders’ book, Understanding Cemetery Symbols, can symbolize “mourning and eternal remembrance.  The laurel wreath also symbolizes victory over death—so even the kind of wreath makes a difference to the meaning.

Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia

The shattered urn, according to Snyder, signifies old age.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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2 Responses to The Ubiquitous Urn

  1. Jonathan Michael Ray says:

    Hi Gravely Speaking,
    this is a wonderful blog!
    I would like to speak to you about gaining your permission to use one of your images from this page in a published essay. could you contact me?
    thank you

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