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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Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)