Visual Arts

Death has always been a patron of the arts. How else would humankind know about the superb arts of King Tutankhamen's ancient Egyptian era if it were not for the exquisite glittering painted and sculpted masterpieces found in his tomb? Likewise, human culture would know little about early Asian sculpture and gilded adornments if it were not for the glowing artifacts found in the burial halls of the emperors of China. These art objects are symbolic translations of human thought and experience of past millennia and offer concrete evidence of those predecessors' beliefs about death and how they grieved.

Humankind has always turned to its earliest childhood memories when selecting a memorial for a loved one. As the visionary scholar Marshall McLuhan wrote in the 1960s, most people move into the future "looking through a rear-view mirror" (1997, p. 12). Artists, on the other hand, tap into a wavelength of the future. No illustration serves better to document the contrast than the creations of the Impressionist painters such as Paul Cézanne (1839), Claude Monet (1946), Berthe Morisot (1841), and Paul Renoir (1839), and the sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848) and Auguste Rodin (1846). Although all of these artists were born in the early Victorian era, their compatriots were commissioning life-sized copies of sculptures and paintings created during the ancient Roman empire for their homes, public buildings, and memorials, as late as the early 1900s.

It takes a cataclysm to change the public's concept of appropriate new lifestyles as well as funerary art. Such a cataclysm rolled over Western consciousness in the aftermath of World War I, with its often futile destruction of a generation's most promising youth. It changed life irrevocably and forced public acceptance of a Weltanschauung, a new worldview, discovering the Impressionist art that had been there all the time.

The way humans face impending death and mourn losses induces the trauma that destroys thought. The poet W. H. Auden, grief-stricken by the death of the Irish playwright William Butler Yeats, compared his sense of desolation to the brutal weather: "He disappeared in the dead of winter / The brooks were frozen / and snow disfigured the public statues / the mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day / The day of his death was a dark, cold day" (1945, pp. 48–53). It is the artists who can give words and images to human devastation. Hopes, fears, and questions are invisible until they can be concretized into potent symbolic translations. Conferring posthumous fame on his friend and fellow artist, Auden is able to see beyond the physical decay and putrefaction of biological death: "Earth, receive an honored guest; / William Yeats is laid to rest; Let the Irish vessel lie / emptied of its poetry" (Bertman 1991, p. 35). It is through the transmission by artists into potent symbolic translations that humankind's inner realities can be communicated and understood.

Religious and Cultural Influences

Human expression of the symbols of death is influenced by the religious and cultural milieu of the times. The Old Testament provides evidence that marking gravesites is an age-old tradition, as Genesis 35:7 reads, "And Rachel died in childbirth. Joseph set up a pillar on her grave while on the way to Ephreth." In 2001 an illustrated article in Biblical Archaeology Review, titled "Standing Stones in the Desert," indicates the kind of "pillar" that might have graced Rachel's grave created by pre-Israelite nomadic tribes in the arid desert of the Sinai. The more artistically sophisticated ancient Egyptians created professionally sculpted markers, such as the example of a stela for Mani-Nakhtuf and son (c. 1200 B.C.E.), which tries to guarantee these ancestors eternal life by "Praising the Moon, Thoth, Bowing down to the stars of heaven . . ." The ancient Romans of the first century Alexandria, influenced by Egyptian customs, painted sweet and accurate portraits of those they loved on the shroud wrappings in which they were buried.

In his historically comprehensive book The Hour of Our Death (1981), Philippe Ariès brings readers to the beginning of Western culture and the iconography with which they are more familiar. He writes, "the Christians of the first millennia believed that the end of time was that of the glorified Christ as he rose to heaven as he sat on a throne ... with a rainbow around it" reminding his audience of these words made real in the magnificently reverent sculptures on Chartres Cathedral in France (Ariès 1981, p. 97). The same devotedly held faith is illustrated in The Goodman on His Death, a woodcut from the fifteenth century, reminding the pious that they need not fear damnation. It implies, as well, that righteous believers would be resurrected at the time of their Lord's Second Coming.

The more successful medieval families were positive that their souls would be immediately translated at the moment of that miraculous event because their position in life guaranteed a last resting place within the confines of a holy church. Just to make sure their rank was recognized, they reproduced their imposing status, in full regalia, in portraits sculpted in brass on their tombs. There were, of course, other concepts of sanctity. Puritans in England and in America saw death as a very grim reaper indeed. Their religion was full of warnings about the perils of hell, and very little about the blessings of heaven. The Americans commissioned their self-taught New World memorial carvers to recreate, on their tombstones, the ghastly skeletons rising from the biers that still frighten so many visitors of Great Britain's old cathedrals. They also had them inscribe on those old markers the frightening warning, "Death is a debt to nature due, which I have paid and so must you."

For a minimally educated population, a dictionary of images was etched into these stones. Images include down-pointed arrows (the dart of death), a descending dove, which represented the holy ghost, a snake with its tail in its mouth representing eternity, broken flowers representing a child's death, and a trumpeting angel, a more optimistic prediction of the resurrection of the soul. Co-existing with these grim conservatives, a milder, Protestant vision of life and death was portrayed by chubby angels who would surely carry the soul to heaven. This conception finally superseded its hell-ridden predecessors.

By the Victorian period, death had become an even more gentle visitor, demonstrated by marble creations of kinder, mostly female, angels who transported the soul to a divine paradise. And since, at that time, Americans decided that the republic duplicated the ancient Greek and Roman governments, sculptors were ordered to copy the urns and palls that graced the newly discovered Greco-Roman tombs. Only little children escaped these classical allusions—they were often represented as little lambs on little stones or full round figures of sleeping babies. Victorians also placed marble reproductions of these dormant infants in their parlors for remembrance. The practice of photographing deceased children, often as if they were sleeping and almost always surrounded by flowers, religious symbols, and special toys is as old as photography itself and suggests that remembrance photographs were important, valuable sources of solace for grieving families.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries As a Turning Point

When nineteenth-century excavators discovered the riches in Egyptian tombs, the fashion in home furnishings and memorials changed almost overnight. The Victorians duplicated the divans found in the pyramids for their parlors, and a forest of four-sided pointed structures arose in graveyards, nestled among the urns and palls of their predecessors. In the nineteenth century carvings of pet dogs, pairs of slippers, favorite chairs, books, and tools of the trades, such as fireman's hats and hoses, appeared on memorials.

Victorian artists did not discriminate against commissions for cemetery sculpture. Interested parties are just as likely to find a statue by Daniel Chester French in a cemetery as they are to stand in awe of his massive Lincoln in the capital in Washington. Though twenty-first-century fine artists rarely create memorials, they have continued to express their personal grief and cultural angst in their own work.

The wrenching images in Kathe Kollwitz's woodcut etchings express the conditions of German life after World War I. For an unforgettable demonstration of an artist's despair at humankind's inhumanity to fellow humans, one can stand, appalled before Picasso's Guernica, as a memorial to the martyred citizens of those victims of war. As Christina Schlesinger writes in Grief and the Healing Arts (1999), "Artists, poets, and painters are a natural resource for developing strategies of mourning. . . . [they] shape inarticulate feelings and bridge the gap between inner confusion and outer resolution" (p. 202).

In the twentieth century society has decided to curb ostentation and conspicuous displays of grief. Memorials no longer resemble the overblown sculptured pylons of the past, and instead, even for the most prominent, they resemble nothing so much as a bronze rectangular serving platter, containing only the name and death dates of the person remembered. There are notable exceptions— the stark Vietnam memorial in Washington, which has become a universally accepted icon of grief for a generation's lost youth, and the artists' cemetery at Green River in Long Island, New York, where the great painters, writers, and musicians of the 1930s are interred, such as Jackson Pollock, Joseph Liebman, and Lee Krasner. Harkening back to the massebah (sacred standing stones) mentioned in the Bible and in other ancient literature is the Alphabet Garden, 2000, a permanent memorial in Grafeneck, Germany, commemorating the victims of Hitler's 1940 "euthanasia experiments" that took place in that city. The sculptor Diane Samuels has inscribed in German a stone large enough to sit upon and reflect, "Please take my letters and form them into prayers." Other tiny stones nearby, are inscribed simply with letters X and A. Perhaps these representations of a bygone loss prove how much human beings have always needed a physical object only an artist can imagine into being. How similar are Joseph's millennia old pillar and the sinister ebony memorial to Holocaust victims displayed at the end of the film Schindler's List (1993).

On a road not imagined by McLuhan, grieving families and friends are setting up multipaged, illustrated dedicatory essays to the deceased on the Internet. An interest in death has also sprung up in the United States on web sites entitled Find-a-Grave, or mounted by historic cemeteries, such as Mt. Auburn in Boston and the National Trust for Historical Preservation. Working men and women have become proud enough of their livelihoods to commission stones that celebrate their labor as the carved ten-wheel vehicle commemorates the trucker Jackie Lowell Stanley (1949–1984), or the speaker's podium engraved with microphones and the logo of their first book No Fear of Speaking commemorates the work of the founders of the Speech Improvement Company. In less advantaged neighborhoods, grieving families are commissioning huge spray-painted murals on the walls of buildings to commemorate deceased family members. A remarkable album of these memorials, titled R.I.P. Memorial Wall Art, was produced in 1994 by Martha Cooper and Joseph Sciorra. Surely these spontaneous gestures indicate a hunger to break with the past and express a formerly shunned display of emotion.

Future Trends

Though dying, death, grief, and mourning are hallmarks of the human condition, their shapes and images have changed through the ages to a time when perhaps even the most acute observer cannot predict how they will be demonstrated next year. Humankind will continue to look to the visionaries—the artists—to document and update their thinking. The excesses of medical technology, the dangers of managed care, and the case for euthanasia or assisted death graphically depicted in twenty- and twenty-first-century treatments of Ars Moriendi would have been unimaginable terrors to the engraver who created the peaceful closure depicted on the woodcut, "The goodman on his deathbed" (Bertman 1991, p. 17). Cartoons of the grim reaper as "the closure fairy" or standing in front of a store window displaying gardening tools deciding whether to purchase the scythe or its more costly counterpart, the mower, or captioned "A Look Ahead," lecturing on the statistics of future deaths, demonstrates the way comic art continues to flirt with death through the use of traditional imagery. Whether mourners are represented striking their heads, tearing out their hair, beating their breasts, scratching their cheeks until they bleed as they are depicted in Greek objects dating back to the early fifth century, or sewing panels for the largest ongoing community arts project in the world, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the visual arts have enabled society to both commemorate the lives of deceased loved ones and to support the human endeavor to conceptualize, endure, and make meaning of loss, suffering, and death.

See also: Ars Moriendi ; Burial Grounds ; Christian Death Rites, History of ; Dance ; Qin Shih Huang' s Tomb ; Tombs ; Vietnam Veterans Memorial


Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Auden, W. H. The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden. New York: Random House, 1945.

Bertman, Sandra L., ed. Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity As Therapy. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 1999.

Bertman, Sandra L. "Ars Moriendi: Illuminations on 'The Good Death' from the Arts and Humanities." In Joan K. Harrold and Joanne Lynn eds., A Good Dying: Shaping Health Care for the Last Months of Life. New York: Haworth Press, 1998.

Bertman, Sandra L. Facing Death: Images, Insights and Interventions. New York: Hemisphere Publishing, 1991.

Cooper, Martha, and Joseph Sciorra. R.I.P. Memorial Wall Art. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994.

Forbes, Harriette Merrifield. Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them, 3rd edition. Brooklyn, NY: Center for Thanatology, 1989.

Gamino, Louis. "A Study in Grief: The Life and Art of Kaethe Kollwitz." In Sandra Bertman ed., Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity As Therapy. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 1999.

Halporn, Roberta. Lessons from the Dead: The Graveyard As a Classroom for the Teaching of the Life Cycle. Brooklyn, NY: Highly Specialized Promotions, 1979.

McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Message. New York: Random House, 1967.

Norfeet, Barbara. Looking at Death. Boston: David R. Godine, 1993.

Stillion, Judith. "Death and Grief Made Visible: The Life and Work of Edvard Munch." In Sandra Bertman ed., Grief and the Healing Arts: Creativity As Therapy. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 1999.

Internet Resources

"The AIDS Memorial Quilt. 1987–2001." In the Aids Memorial Quilt [web site]. Available from .

"Creative and Unique Memorials." In the Monument Builders [web site]. Available from .

"Standing Stones in the Desert." In the Biblical Archaeology Review [web site]. Available from .


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