The doors to mausoleums are often imbued with symbolism. In fact, the door itself represents a portal. Portals come in many forms—a door, a window, even your eyes and your mouth are considered portals. Many superstitions about death concern portals, many of which come from the Victorian Age, some of which still exist today.
The eyes, for instance, are considered the windows to the soul. Victorians believed the eyes were powerful, almost magical, even in death. When a person died therefore, the body had to be removed from the home feet first (most people died at home in the 19th Century). In that way, the eyes of the deceased could not look back and lure a live person to follow the dead through the passageway to death.
The Victorians also believed that as you passed by a cemetery that you needed to hold your breath. The fear was that if one opened one’s mouth, that a spirit from the dead residing in the cemetery would enter your body through the portal—the open mouth.
Another superstition had to do with the mirrors in the home. After a death, the family very quickly covered the mirrors. It was believed that mirrors were false portals in a sense. The Victorians believed that the spirit of the dead could enter a mirror and become trapped in the mirror. If the spirit did so, it would not be able to complete its trip through the passageway from the Earthly realm to the Heavenly realm, or in some cases, to warmer climes.
The door as a motif in funerary art symbolizes mystery. The door is the portal from the Earthly realm to the next. In Christianity, the door is usually viewed with hope, charity, and faith. The next life in the hereafter will be better than the one experienced here on Earth.
The door pictured here was created for the Charles B. Bohn mausoleum in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery by Rhode Island artist, Philip Bernard “Ben” Johnson. Johnson was a long-time sculptor at the Gorham Silver Company and Foundry for over 50 years. While working at Gorham, Johnson created Silver place settings, flatware, tea sets, and doors.
The bronze door features a classically dressed and draped mourning figure standing with her head bowed, tentatively waiting in somber silence. In David Robinson’s book, Saving Graces, 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.
With her other hand the mourning figure is lifting part of her garment uncovering part of her face. The veil represents the partition that exists between the Earthly realm and the Heavenly one–between life and death. Again, this door has two main symbols—pine cones and leaves and laurel leaves. The bottom of this door has one additional symbol nestled in with the laurel branches—the Easter lily. The Easter lily, as a funerary symbol, has many meanings including purity, innocence, virginity, heavenly bliss, majestic beauty, and Christ’s resurrection. Christians believe that the trumpet-shaped blossoms announce the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Easter lily has long been associated with the Christian religion, commonly referred to as “White-Robed Apostles of Christ.” Early Christians believed that lilies sprouted where Jesus Christ’s sweat fell to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane.