Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

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Many people tend to be creeped out by graveyards and memorial gardens, especially around Halloween and the Day of the Dead. Yet these places can have the opposite effect, awakening in visitors a newfound sense of the sacred and beautiful, offering an intimate perspective on history, and stoking spiritual contemplation.

Inside such sanctuaries, past the wrought iron fences, stand rows of headstones and tomb monuments (including mausoleums). On them are dates, epitaphs, and symbols, altogether the final expressions of the dead. By way of these chiseled features on marker stones, the deceased communicate with the living. Ornamentation, of which carvings and sculptures of birds are especially noteworthy, accentuates this connection.

Spiritual Symbols and Signposts

Avian iconography, among the most pervasive of contemporary animal-based cemetery themes, is widespread, having been linked to burial and entombment for millennia. The ancient Egyptians were particularly fascinated with birds in this regard. Besides mummifying ibises1 and falcons,2 they placed wooden human-headed bird figurines with their dead.3 Similarly, American Indians thousands of years ago included so-called birdstones in graves.4 In China, images of cranes were painted to decorate the tomb of a fourteenth-century Taoist priest,5 while ancient sculptures of birds atop cedar trees remain throughout Iran’s ancient Dar al-Salam cemetery.6

Winged creatures of many kinds hold spiritual significance to the deceased. Here in the United States, where the predominant religion is Christianity, the dove is the primary bird of choice.7 This is understandable considering the animal’s historical connections to ritualized purity (e.g., Leviticus 1:14–17) and symbolic importance to the Holy Spirit (e.g., Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). But it’s not the only feathered beauty to be depicted on Christian burial monuments. For example, statues and carvings of peacocks can also be seen, principally in Europe.8 Such imagery calls to mind the birds’ centuries-old association with immortality, as cited in medieval bestiaries and taught much earlier by St. Augustine, who claimed from his own personal observations that peafowl flesh would not rot.9

Special Circumstances          

While religion is a central component of most cemetery art, symbols found in graveyards are sometimes dedicated to a loved one’s heritage and occupation. Therefore, swans, hawks, and other avian iconography appear in heraldic designs on headstones, as American families have wished to accentuate their ties to European ancestry through such features.10 Also, a person’s fame and accomplishments, especially if exemplary, occasionally take symbolic form in granite and marble. Consider the carved raven on Edgar Allan Poe’s old grave marker or the avifauna depicted on John James Audubon’s memorial tomb.

On a sidenote, some cemetery pieces have been known to develop a life of their own. One of these is the Bird Girl sculpture.11 Featured on the cover of John Berendt’s 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this bronze statue from the Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, GA, emerged as a popular tourist attraction. Concerns however eventually led to the Bird Girl’s relocation; it now safely resides in the Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center, not far from Bonaventure.12

Final Respects

Though the Bird Girl no longer dwells among obelisks, crosses, tablets, and other grave art, lots of avian imagery and bird-related figures can be seen on longstanding monuments to the deceased. For people intrigued by symbology, the presence of such visuals makes for interesting sightseeing. Actual birds—not those crafted from stone—are likely to be spotted and heard, too, as memorial gardens are the unofficial bird sanctuaries of urban areas. So very little in cemeteries is creepy. On the other hand, much exists to appreciate and ponder.

Sources:

  1. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2007. p. 105.
  2. Scalf, R. “The Role of Birds within the Religious Landscape of Ancient Egypt.” Bailleul-LeSuer, R (editor). Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt (publication for Oct. 15, 2012 – July 28, 2013 exhibition). The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Oriental Institute Museum Publications 35, 2012. pp. 34–35.
  3. Bailleul-LeSuer, R. (editor). Catalog no. 34, “Birds in Death and the Afterlife.” Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. p. 201.
  4. Lenik, EJ. Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009. p. 217.
  5. Hung, W. Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs. London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2010. p. 61.
  6. Parsayi, M, Rad, FS, Mazloomi, SM. “Study of Graphical Features on Gravestones of an Ancient Iranian Cemetery.” Material Religion. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (March 2014). pp. 124–127.
  7. Keister, D. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2004. pp. 79–80.
  8. Keister, D. pp. 83–84.
  9. Augustine of Hippo. The City of God, Books XVII–XXII (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 24). Walsh, GG, Honan, DJ (translators). Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008 (first printed: 1954). Book XXI, chapter 4. p. 345.
  10. Clark, EW. “The Bigham Carvers of the Carolina Piedmont: Stone Images of an Emerging Sense of American Identity.” Cemeteries & Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Meyer, RE (editor). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992. p. 41.
  11. This sculpture, one of several made by artist Sylvia Shaw Judson, consists of a young female who holds two pan-like bowls. Since no birds are depicted, the origin of the statue’s Bird Girl nickname is not apparent. The prevailing idea is that the bowls may have served as feeders. However, another possibility is that, when rainwater filled the bowls, they functioned as birdbaths.
  12. Stollznow, K. “The Haunted (Pseudo) History of Bonaventure Cemetery,” 8/3/2009. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_haunted_pseudo_history_of_bonaventure_cemetery.
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7 thoughts on “Grave Matters: Avian Cemetery Art

  1. I so agree with you; to me, cemeteries are only peaceful spaces, with the temptation to fall down all sorts of rabbit holes of history and symbolism. It’s a pity that so much of that symbolic richness seems limited to the past; I suppose the expense was always an issue, but I have to say if I’m going to be buried, I want a nice headstone with an ibis carved on it! (The god Thoth is a favorite of many writers, I think.)

    1. A great deal of symbolism does seem relegated to the past. Some of the most interesting cemeteries, I think, are the older ones, those established centuries ago. Not only iconography but dates, of course, provide crucial clues. Many men perished in wars, women died in childbirth, and lots of children didn’t progress past adolescence. A headstone with an ibis or Thoth would make for intriguing cemetery artwork here in the U.S.!

  2. The only creepy thing in a cemetery could be an evil human. How sad it is that after people complete their life and die, they suddenly become something we are supposed to be afraid of. How unfair, and beyond any logic.

  3. What a lovely post. When you put it up, I happened to be in Kansas, and rather disconnected from the internet during a three-week driving trip. Now that I’m catching up, I’m finding some true delights: including this.

    You might be interested by a post about the haunting qualities of the ibis posted here by a fellow whom I follow. It was doubly interesting for me to read this post after reading his.

    I spent a good bit of time in cemeteries during my travels, but I don’t remember seeing any birds, apart from the occasional descending dove. On the other hand, I found a wealth of nests, apparently made by some sort of mud-daubing bird (perhaps cliff swallows of a sort?) at Monument Rocks in western Kansas. I haven’t identified them yet, but they certainly will appear in a blog post — once I get myself back into what passes for a routine around here.

    1. Thanks! I, myself, haven’t been able to go online as much as I’d like this time of year. I hope your travels are going well. Also, I appreciate the link to the “Night Noises of Pucón” post. I’d never thought of black-faced ibises as an eerie bird before, but the writer made a good case!

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