Gravestones And Other Markers

Tracing the development of differing objects of memory provides a general background for understanding the development of gravestones and other markers from colonial times to the present in North America. Based on this overview, three broad traditions emerge: memento mori markers, markers that evoke the phrase, "in memory of," and ignoratio mori markers.

Memento Mori

The memento mori (remember death) tradition, which began with colonization and continues into the present, emerges from and belongs to a set of values that insists on both a devaluation of the body (indeed, all things temporal) and a valorization of the spirit or soul. The most obvious and significant consequence of such insistence is that markers belonging to this tradition discursively and iconographically encourage viewers to remember death as a means of reminding the living to prepare for judgment.

Gravestones and markers belonging to the memento mori tradition tend to be relatively modest structures (between one and five feet in height and width and between two and five inches thick). Characteristically, marker inscriptions provide only the deceased's name, age, date of death, and, less frequently, date of birth, cause of death, and family or community status, with by far the largest number providing nothing more than a brief inscription. Mottos such as the Latin phrases Memento mori and Fugit hora ("time flies" or, more literally, "hours flee") appear on countless early markers from this tradition and leave little room for doubt as to what viewers are to remember. To restate and reinforce the lesson, markers also continually confront viewers with time- and death-related icons.

In Memory Of

A second tradition, which began to emerge during the early years of the eighteenth century and also continues into the present, identifies a particular individual as the object of memory. Initially, proponents of this tradition, which we may designate the "in memory of" tradition, borrowed heavily from the memento mori tradition by producing markers nearly identical in size, shape, and general appearance. However, rather than instructing viewers to "remember death," these new markers discursively and iconographically emphasized the deceased, often drawing attention to emotions occasioned by the individual's death.

With the introduction of rural cemeteries, which specifically reflect the values of this tradition, came a remarkably increased facility for patrons to produce an enormous variety of gravestones and markers. Despite that variety, such markers fall into two general categories.

The first category abides principally by the creed that memorials are, or ought to be, works of art insofar as they serve primarily to draw attention either to the memorial as a work of art or to the work of art as a memorial. Typically, markers belonging to this category borrow heavily from Egyptian, Greek, Gothic, and Roman sources.

The second category draws attention not only to the memory of the deceased and to the work of art as a memorial (or to the memorial as a work of art), but also to pathetic sentiments. Some of the more common focal points for this kind of marker are the faithful animal, the poised angel, women and children, and replicas of nature or natural phenomena. In all, markers within this tradition generally serve not as a means of reminding viewers of their urgent need to bring order out of chaos in order to prepare religiously for death, but as a means of encouraging viewers to live aesthetically, homeopathically, and naturally in the moment.

Ignoratio Mori

A third tradition, which we may designate the ignoratio mori ("ignore death") tradition, began to appear in gravescapes as early as the mid–eighteenth century and continues into the present. This tradition initially borrowed heavily from previous traditions. However, rather than replicating themes indicative of those traditions, this tradition sets death aside and focuses heavily on the lived accomplishments of the deceased. In general terms this tradition developed in three divergent but complementary directions.

The first direction produced markers that explicitly emphasized the deceased's worldly achievements, social or cultural standing, and heroic actions. The second direction produced memorials specifically designed to be erected in towns and cities, which afforded the double advantage of allowing proponents to construct memorials of sufficient size and of dissociating their tradition from the gravescape (and, thus, death). The third direction emerged as a consequence of the introduction of the lawn cemetery, a gravescape explicitly designed to reflect and articulate the values underlying this tradition. Here, markers (and again death) are flush with or slightly depressed into the ground so that the only immediately visible memorial efforts are those selected by adherents to this tradition and thus can insure that all memorials contained within this funerary environment conform to appropriate values.

See also: Burial Grounds ; Cemeteries AND Cemetery Reform ; Epitaphs ; Lawn Garden Cemeteries


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