Memorial for a Man of the Church




APRIL 15, 1860.


DIED FEB. 2, 1904.

R. I. P.

The marker for the Rev. Kirby in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California, is a Celtic cross.  The two main symbols on the staff of the cross are the chalice and the lamb.

The chalice is a symbol of the Holy sacraments and is flanked by grapes and wheat—symbols of the Eucharist—the blood and body of Jesus Christ.  This also speaks to the profession of the deceased because the chalice is a “tool of his trade” so to speak.

There are many gravestone symbols that seem to be ubiquitous—the lamb is one of them. Walk into nearly any American graveyard and you will find tiny little lambs marking the graves of mostly children. The lamb symbols come in many sizes and positions—often sleeping. The lamb is the symbol of the Lord, the Good Shepherd. It also represents innocence, likely the reason why this motif usually adorns the tombstones of infants and young children. Most often the lamb is lying down, often asleep and sometimes with a cross behind the lamb.

The letters IHS are what is referred to as a “Christogram.”  The three letters represent Jesus Christ as they are the first three letters of His name in Greek.  But, through the years various other meaning have been assigned to the letters:

in hoc salus: there is safety in this

in hoc signo: by this sign

Jesus hominum salvtor: Jesus, Savior of Mankind

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Their Little Angel




A friend of mine recently shared with me that her first husband passed away when she was 23.  Her husband was 24 and their daughter was only a year old.  It was a very tough for her emotionally, financially, and she felt alone.  She’d just lost her husband and now had to go on to raise their daughter by herself.  And, she had to attend to the funeral arrangements even as she dealt with waves of grief.

She told me that she took a long time to decide on the headstone.  While she was at the monument company, she also overheard a man picking out a headstone for his wife of 60 years.  Both experiences, like all experiences when someone is picking out a gravestone for a loved one, is deeply personal and fraught with emotion.  It is, after all, one of the last things you can do for your loved one.  Not only that, but it will be a reminder not only to you but to all who gaze upon the gravestone and think about the person buried beneath it.

So, when I saw the kneeling angel that marks the grave of 13-year old Alice May Parker, I can’t help but think of the anguish her parents had when their daughter passed away.  She died of typhoid fever and must have suffered with the fever for a few days before she died.  I am sure they were by her bedside attending to her and hoping for the best results.  Then the end came.  The grief of a parent for a child is overwhelming.

When looking at gravestones, there is always room for interpretation.  Elisabeth L. Roark wrote an article about angels titled, “Embodying Immortality: Angels in America’s Rural Garden Cemeteries, 1850—1900”, pages 56 – 111, 2007 edition of Markers, XXIV, in which she 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.

The winged protectors served to watch over the “soul while living, removed occasions of sin and provided protection when danger threatened, interceded on their charges’ behalf, attended at death, eased the transition to the next world, conducted the soul to Heaven, and looked after the grave site and the deceased’s remains until resurrection.”

These were busy angels. In addition to those duties, the praying angels served as an intercessor conveying messages from their charges to Heaven. These angels usually are looking upward toward the Heavens, hands clasped together in prayer, sometimes coupled with emblems of faith, such as, anchors and crosses, often clad in toga-like clothing.

But when I look at Alice May Parker’s monument in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., I wonder if her parents, George and Sofia Parker, saw their little girl in that angel, to me the angel looks to be about the same age as Alice May when she died.   I wonder if her parents made the choice to mark her grave with an angel, not as a messenger from God, but as a memorial to their little angel.

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In the small Bethel Cemetery in rural Harrison County, Iowa, is a double tablet gravestone commemorating the graves of two children.


DIED NOV. 19, 1879


6 YEARS & 9





DEC. 29, 1879


5 YEARS & 15


Children of



Tis hard to give them up

Yet we drink from the bitter cup in hope

That we shall meet again

Beyond this sphere of sin and pain.

In the top of the white marble marker in a double rounded inset mimicking the gravestone shape is a carved image of a boy and a girl holding hands depicting the Henderson’s children who died a little more than a month apart at the end of 1879.  The stone is a reminder of how high mortality rates were for infants and children in the 19th Century.

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The Willows


memory of

Eliza Hammond

who Departed

this life … 18th

1854, in the 17th

year of her

Remember friends as you pass by

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now so you must be

Prepare for death and follow me.

One of my favorite graveyard symbols is the willow.  The willows come in all sorts of the forms—some realistic, others highly stylized—and sometime they are combined with other objects, such as gravestones, weepers, and quite often, urns.  And, they can be found nearly everywhere—the willow motif is ubiquitous in 18th and 19th Century American cemeteries.

The willow represents a turning away from the harsh symbolism of death found on Puritan gravestones to a softened approach as America moved into the Romantic era.  In their groundbreaking article, “Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow,” James Deetz and Edwin S. Dethlefsen, wrote that 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.  Often the willow motif is accompanied with words like, “In memory of” or “Sacred to the memory of.”  This represented a softer approach to the funerary arts.

Like many symbols found in the cemetery, they can have multiple meanings, and there can be disagreement about the meaning of the motif—including the willow. 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. And, point to the Bible verse, Psalm 137.:2, “We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.” As a reference to its Christian origins, though few biblical scholars believe that the willow was the tree quoted in the passages as the willow is not native to the Middle East.  Others suggest that the willow motif predates Christianity going back to the time of the Greeks. The willows in Greek mythology was associated with the Underworld. Orpheus carried a willow branch with him when he traveled there to rescue Eurydice from Hades. Whether Greek or biblical, the motif coincided with a neo-classical revival that took place in the mid-18th Century in America.

The two examples of willows on gravestones from the Fairview Cemetery in New Albany, Indiana, in this post display two of the many different styles of willows that can be found in graveyards.  In both cases the willow fills the tympanum and is intricately carved.

In the example above, the limestone tablet is elaborately carved with an architectural look to it—columns on the sides with Ionic capitals, holding up the top of the third of the stone.  Inside the arched tympanum is the willow which takes on almost human characteristics—it is bent over in grief and agony, its long thin branches enveloping the tombstone topped with an urn.  The tablet is weathered in an unusual way—with an effect in the lower third of the face of the stone with a bubbling like blur that meanders up through the inscription.

The example below, also from the Fairview Cemetery in New Albany, Indiana, also has a willow tree in the tympanum of the gravestone.  In this gravestone, the willow offers shade to the newly marked grave of Mary Eliza Goodrich.  The weathered gravestone is difficult to decipher.


To the memory of


Daughter of

Cornelius & M[ ]inda


who departed this life

July 2nd 1887 aged 17

years & 5 months

Dangers stand thick thro’ all the ground

To push us to the tomb

And fierce diseases wait around

To hurry [to sorrow’s] home.


As a feeble tribute to her memory

This inscription is humbly

Dedicated by an affectionate friend.

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Weeping Angel, Additional Examples

William Wetmore Story (February 12, 1819 – October 7, 1895), the son of Joseph Story—Supreme Court Justice from 1811—1845, was a multi-talented Renaissance man. Story was an editor, poet, art critic, and an incredible sculptor. Though trained as a lawyer at the Harvard Law School, he abandoned the legal profession to follow the arts.

His body of art work includes among others, a sculpture of his father, Joseph Story, fittingly at the Harvard Law School and a statue of another famous jurist and judicial colleague of his father’s, Chief Justice John Marshall. But the sculpture that has become replicated and imitated in cemeteries in Europe and America is the monument that he carved for his wife’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy.

An article written in the Sept. 1896, issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine stated:

The loss of the wife of his youth whom he survived but a year, was a bitter blow; and with her passed his interest in affairs. It was only when his children suggested that he should make a monument to her memory that he consented to resume work; the design he chose was the “Angel of Grief”, and it is wrought to exquisite finish…When this was done he left the studio never to return.”

The statue marking Emelyn and William Wetmore Story’s grave depicts an angel collapsed and distraught in grief. The statue is dramatic and evokes the solemn loss of a loved one. The statue is known, aptly as the Angel of Grief perhaps because of its ability to capture devastating grief from departure due to death.

The statue’s imitators can be found in many cemeteries including the ones below:

Perhaps one of the most elegant examples can be found in the Metarie Cemetery at New Orleans in the Chapman H. Hyams mausoleum. In the picture above, the blue light from the stained glass showers the statue in a calming hue.

The example above is in the Mount Hope Cemetery at San Diego, California, and marks the grave of Marjorie Marie Pierce.

Marking the grave of the Hill Family in the Glenwood Cemetery at Houston, Texas, is a replica of nearly exacting quality.

Irene Bagby’s marker in the Serbian Cemetery at Colma, California.

Jennifer Roosevelt Pool’s monument in the Cypress Lawn Cemetery at Colma, California. Pool was the cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Two examples in the Green-wood Cemetery at Brooklyn, New York, have a slightly deviated design. In this version for the O’Donohue Family has the angel holding a wreath. The laurel wreath dates back to Roman times when soldiers wore them as triumphal signs of glory.  The laurel was also believed to wash away the soldier’s guilt from injuring or killing any of his opponents.  In funerary art the laurel wreath is often seen as a symbol of victory over death.

This example is also found in the Green-Wood Cemetery at Brooklyn. It marks the grave of Michael and Shamsi Kaydouh.

This example is found in the St. Luke Cemetery at Chicago. It is a small version and does not mark a grave but is used as a piece of artwork for the cemetery.  On the front of the monument is the poem:

The bud was spread, To show the rose

Our Savior smiled, The bud was closed. 


The example below is from the Presbyterian Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia.  It is tucked under a tree.

This example below was found at the Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park t New Albany, Indiana.

This last example is from the Stanford campus in California.

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Swan Song

The intricately carved white swan set on a highly polished black granite base in the Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park in New Albany, Indiana, is only second such gravestone I have come across, likely carved by the same stone carver—the other in the White Oak Cemetery in Bloomington, Indiana.

An early legend from antiquity that extends as far back as Pliny the Elder in AD77 in his book on natural history credit the swan with singing a plaintive song as it dies.  Many other writers in ancient times wrote and believed this to be.  So, it became part of the vernacular and has come to mean, in modern day, as one last great performance.

In a courtyard in the Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park is a bronze statue dedicated to the legend.  The inscription on the base of the statue reads, ““Swan Song” Legend has it that the swan sings a plaintive farewell song when one of the birds die.”  That is a slight twist on the legend indicating that the fellow swans sing to the dying mate instead of the dying swan singing its last song.

The swan is also familiar to us all from Hans Christian Anderson’s story.  In the tale the poor duckling, mocked and ridiculed for being so ugly, magically transforms into an elegant and graceful adult swan–thereby becoming a symbol of transformation.  The swan in funerary art could possibly represent the metamorphosis from one form into the next.  Because the swan often pair for life, the swan is also a symbol of love.

A n engraving by Reinier van Persijn depicts the legend of the swan song.

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The Church Window

Generally, I write about older gravestones from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  I usually find them to be more interesting with symbolism that is intriguing and sometimes forgotten or obscure.  Or I write about statuary found in graveyards that are works of art often by well-known artists who did commission work including funerary sculptures.

But as I was walking through the Kraft-Graceland Memorial Park in New Albany, Indiana, I was struck by a highly polished black granite gravestone with a stained-glass window inset.  The window depicts a ray of sunlight shining down on the Cross.  The gravestone was designed, I think, to look like a free-standing church window and is a stellar example of a modern design of mixed construction materials.

Within the ray is a dove with a sprig of three leaves in its beak—the number three likely representing the Holy Trinity.  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 into 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.

The dove, with its white color, is also a symbol of purity and innocence and for that reason is often found the tombstones of children.

Thus, the dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, peace, and purity.

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