The Grim Reaper

A large massive monolith was built to commemorate the pioneers who were buried in The Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco.  The Memorial to Commemorate the California Pioneers, is dedicated to those 35,000 pioneer graves that were removed from San Francisco to the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.  Their removal began February 26, 1940.  A large bronze placard states, “As you stand here, open your heart to the pioneers.  They gave you great cities, a fair free land of mountains, a broad sea and the bluest of skies.  Open your heart to them, and trust the best that was in them all, and they will also give you wisdom and humor and above all, courage.  For they are your fathers.”

On the opposite side of the monolith, is a three-quarter sculpture of the grim reaper characterized by a long beard and a scythe.  The scythe is his tool for cutting down and harvesting souls.  In this sculpture the Grim Reaper is depicted as a thin bearded old man with wings.  A winged hour glass rests on his knee.

There are several expressions in the American lexicon that refer to the hourglass and express how fleeting our time on this Earth is, how this temporal life is short. The grand old soap opera, Days of Our Lives, has as their catchphrase, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”  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, as it here, represents the same thought of time fleeting by quickly reminding us of the expression “Time Flies”.  This symbol, a winged hourglass, brings that expression to life, so to speak.  A reminder in stone that life is short and that time is fleeting, every minute of every day brings one closer and closer to death.

Some believe that the origin of the reaper is from the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman.  Since ancient times, the imagery of the soul crossing a river was created to explain how the soul went from one realm to the other.  This vivid imagery has long been a part of the symbolism of death in iconography and word.

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.

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1 Response to The Grim Reaper

  1. Leah Mullins says:

    I love the mythology reference. It reminds me of a book series I read, the His Dark Materials series (aka the Golden Compass series) by Philip Pullman. In the book “The Amber Spyglass”, the main character Lyra has to get into a boat and cross a river over to the land of death. In the books, the characters all have daemons (like little animal extensions of their own souls) and the scene is heartbreaking, as Lyra and her daemon painfully separate from one another so she can travel to the land of the dead and rescue her friend. AND…when people die in the books, their daemons turn into coins and they are buried with them! I had no idea Pullman took this imagery from Greek mythology. So cool!

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