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Posts Tagged ‘urn’

I’m not lucky enough to see many tombstones with this particular combination of symbols, but those I have seen have all been gorgeous. A woman mourns at a tomb topped with an urn under the shade of a weeping willow tree, a representation of the grief felt by the bereft loved ones of the deceased.

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The weeping willow is one of my favorite funerary symbols, and the cemetery at the former First Presbyterian Church in East Cleveland is full of them.  As I said when we looked at this symbol before, the tree has an association not only with grief, but with immortality in many cultures.

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Most of the art with willow trees in this churchyard also features urns. Urns of course can be used to hold ashes, as the Greeks used them, but they also came to be associated with memorializing the deceased even in a 19th century American culture that rarely practiced cremation.

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Earlier this week, I wrote about the symbolism of wreaths, particularly laurel wreaths, in cemeteries. Wreaths signify immortality and victory of the soul over death. In addition to appearing on the sides of monuments, they fit nicely into the hands of statues that sit mourning on top of (or on the side of) the pedestal.

This statue, a wreath resting on her knee, serenely watches over the memorial for Isaac Bates in Spring Grove Cemetery.

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The statue on the Doane monument walks, her eyes cast downward, with a wreath carved of leaves that seem to be laurel.

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The Tanner statue rests her arm on a draped urn as she stares at it, wreath in her hand.

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Everyone has aesthetic preferences, and we’re coming up against one of mine. I don’t find the urn (sometimes draped and sometimes not) to be a particularly visually interesting symbol, and that is why it is so underrepresented in my photographs. Douglass Keister comments in Stories in Stone that the urn is a good candidate for the most commonly used funerary symbol of the 19th century. Based on the cemeteries I visit and their 19th century origins, I should have many more photos of urns that I do, but I just don’t usually feel compelled to press the shutter button.

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The urn itself represents a vessel for holding ashes or cremated remains. Keister points out this makes the urn an odd choice for a popular symbol, as cremation was a much rarer practice in the 19th century when the urn enjoyed its heyday as a symbol. The urns we are looking at are carved representations rather than functional urns. When it is present, the drape may represent “the veil between earth and the heavens” (Keister 137).

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