Funerary Iconography – Digital Presentation for AGS


So, seeing as my talk at the Association for Gravestone Studies (NY Chapter) is only 25 days away, it’s probably time to start thinking about what this presentation will actually entail. …Also probably time to think about a hotel. What I thought I would do with this particular post is provide an outline of my talk, accompanied by a heavier emphasis on the visual element of my talk, which, being a visual culture conference, will likely weigh heavily on the discussion.

As the conference draws nearer, I will likely post more about the actual transcript of my talk. But this post will just serve as an interesting reference for some 19th century American trends in gravestone iconography (mostly coming from the North East, specifically New York and Massachusetts). If anyone has questions regarding the details of these images, please let me know! I likely remember more about the stones/cemeteries than I will write in here.

This is the title for my discussion, and accompanying it is a nifty little icon that I created to be my visual calling card during the conference – just a super cool motif i found at a cemetery in Marblehead, MA (eighteenth century, decorative skull/crossbones).


Romanticism and Ruralism:
Changing Nineteenth Century American
Perceptions of the Natural World, as Reflected in Mortuary Iconography

Here is a brief outline of the discussion, with a few interesting gravestone inscriptions that I will discuss more at length in the near future.

I decided to start out the talk with my favorite vignette that has starred in oh-so-many of my works, most notably my thesis, Romanticism and Ruralism:

“In 1833, Swedish tourist Carl David Arfwedson meandered through the delicately landscaped carriage paths of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upon experiencing Mt. Auburn, Arfwedson wrote:

“Here stands man alone in the presence of his creator and his conscience. …Look at these weeping willows, these cypresses – what do they not announce? And this flower, but lately planted, spreading its fragrance through the air, this rattling and crystal-like stream, this plaintive tone of a solitary bird – is not all this a language that speaks to the heart? Death inspires here no dread: on the contrary, a glance at this beautiful cemetery almost excites a wish to die.”

What was so remarkable about the rural cemetery that it inspired so strong a sentimentalization of death and idealization of nature?”

This just strikes me as the perfect way to introduce the Rural Cemetery Movement, and more specifically for this talk, the introduction of naturalistic themes within cannons of funerary iconography. I am going to provide a very truncated introduction to Romanticism and the transmission of Romantic aesthetics into 19th century American culture through art and literature, and follow that up with a very brief discussion of landscape architecture and rural cemeteries.

Then we will get into the real meat of the discussion – the mortuary iconography.


I have prepared this little tidbit regarding various motifs:

The gravestone iconography accompanying with these early cemeteries also reflects the ideologies of the early American mindscape and the growing appreciation of the natural world. In their work on mortuary iconography, Frederick Gorman and Michael DiBlasi hypothesize that “expectations about the patterning of gravestone iconography are assumed to be the material correlate of mortuary ideas.”  The designs placed on headstones reflect the mentalities of the societies creating them. Of the various iconographic motifs that appear within early American cemeteries, some of the most popular are the “bird-like death’s head, angel, anchor, skeleton, wreath, torch, hourglass, cross, father time, shroud, masonic emblem, cherub, plain inscription, urn and willow, portrait, sunflower rosette, skull and crossbones.”  Several of these motifs were images that originated in European graveyard inscriptions, and were transferred into the American cemetery iconography as a result of migrations of Europeans to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. ”

225128_10152020870840023_1831742290_nI have a lot of cool imagery to pair with this part of the discussion – mostly from 18th century cemeteries in Massachusetts where the skull and cross-bone motif was prominent. Also lots of ‘winged deaths-head,’ and some very creepy attempts at creating a human likeness – very puritanical.


This style of gravestone often includes lots of added (sometimes hidden) elements of memento mori, for example an hour glass inscribed into the forehead of a winged-skull.

These present an interesting opportunity for comparison, when the discussion comes to the changing perspectives of death in 19th century American culture. Next, I will move onto the increasing prevalence of natural elements in gravestone iconography, most notably the willow tree. These images are almost entirely from New York, where this image was incredibly popular among 19th and 20th century burial populations.


“In the New York area, the image of the willow tree, often accompanied with one or more neoclassical urns, is ubiquitous. These changes to funerary iconography mirror the greater social changes occurring during the early to mid-nineteenth century. “Certain researchers have hypothesized that shifts in the popularity of these widespread motifs reflected concomitant changes in theology. To them, the death’s head signifies the mortality of the deceased, while the cherub represents immortality; the urn and willow symbolize the impersonal aspect of death.”  Whereas the seventeenth and early eighteenth century had seen dark and morbid headstone imagery, (for example, the skull and cross bones motif or the death’s head), compared to the stoic, rather unfeeling coldness of the willow tree and urn, a change was then noticeable with the onset of more sentimental imagery (for example the cherub), which represented a much more hopeful and optimistic view of death.


This change correlates with the movement of graveyards out of urban churchyards and into rural landscapes, and the associated turn away from negative views of death to a more positive outlook and a more natural aesthetic.”

In any case, I won’t bore you with all of the fascinating nuances of these iconography motifs right now, I’m sure I will post more about the content of this discussion in the weeks leading up to the presentation. But again, if anyone is researching gravestone iconography (particularly that of the NY area), I’m just full of random information. Also photographs. Hundreds, and hundreds of photographs.

Further Reading:
AGS Program/Presentation
 – Romanticism and Ruralism as AGS Talk
– AGS website
– AGS Facebook page 
– NY Chapter of AGS Facebook page
 NY Chapter Inaugural Meeting Event Page 


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