Recently on a drive to attend a company retreat in sunny Captiva, Florida, while listening to the radio, I heard Bobby Helms sing one of his 50’s hits, “My Special Angel”. It reminded me of one of the gravestones I recently photographed in the Cliff Hill Cemetery in Versailles, Indiana, (pronounced ver-sailes), not to be mistaken for the pronunciation of the Palace of Versailles—(ver-sigh) in France.
The angel in this case is standing with one hand resting on a broken column and holding a small bouquet of roses in the other hand. She looks downward. In an article about angels titled, “Embodying Immortality: Angels in America’s Rural Garden Cemeteries, 1850-1900”, pages 56 – 111, 2007 edition of Markers, XXIV, Elisabeth Roark 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.
Angels are mentioned over 270 times in the Bible but of the eight categories of angels that Roark describes in her article, decorating is the only type not specifically defined in the Bible. Roark notes that decorating graves with flowers originates with the ancient Greeks, this type of symbolism, however, is something newly found in graveyards of the 19th Century. After the Civil War, it became popular to decorate graves lavishly with flowers. Roark writes, “Like their live counterparts, the angels’ sculpted flowers suggest the parallels drawn at this time between the cyclical nature of plant life and human birth, death, and resurrection.”
The angel in the monument holds roses. Romantics have waxed poetic about the rose and the connection to love for centuries which has made the rose an undeniable symbol of love. However, the roses in this case, are unlikely to symbolize romantic love but instead represent martyrdom and the messianic hope that Christ will return. The number “3” is also important—she holds three roses which may very well represent the Holy Trinity.
The column, too, is an important piece of iconography. In the cemetery, much of the symbolism that can be found represents a life ended—the winged death’s head, the hanging bud, the broken wheel. Some sources say that the broken column represents the loss of the head of the family—others that it represents the life cut down in its prime. In this case, however, the deceased couple whose graves this monument marks lived past 70.