Graveyard Art II

Time for part II of our Graveyard Art series. But first of all a big Thank You! for all the feedback on our first post. Debbi and I are really happy that you enjoyed our art while – possibly – learning some interesting facts about graveyard art. Speaking of which, Debbi has also got her own blog, check it out here. But now it is time for the next set of questions that Debbi will answer.


There are burials and cremations ~ want to tell us a little about their history? Possibly what different beliefs are important (e.g. facing east/west)?

1st Presbyterian Church, Morristown, cemetery, graveyardtomb, burial vault, crypt

That is a chicken before the egg question, burial versus cremation.  Throughout time there has been both, depending upon the religious and spiritual beliefs of the people of a particular culture.  Cemeteries as we know them today are a fairly recent phenomena in a historical and archeological sense, and there are numerous and complex reasons for how cemeteries have evolved over time. Two concepts come to mind. 1.  In Europe, people of wealth were buried either under the church floors or just outside of the church.  2.  Somewhere along the line the people figured out the health issue this presented and moved the burials to a space apart from the church.  Over time, they moved further away.  Each cemetery will have its own unique historical reasons behind how it was created and how it has evolved over the ages.  Gothic Dark ArtOne example:  Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.  This started out as a racetrack but the owner of the land/track, although a prominent business man, was denied membership in a certain prestigious club.  Out of spite he sold the race track to the City for use as a cemetery.  As far as facing east, this is a Christian practice.  The head would be to the west and the feet would be placed to the east, with east being the direction of the Second Coming.  However, this burial practice actually pre-dates Christianity by thousands of years, and can be found in numerous cultures that practiced a “sun-based belief system” of worship.


Are there famous graveyards? If yes, why?

Pere Lechaise in Paris France comes to mind here.  Highgate Cemetery in London.  Sadly, there is very little written work about these two places outside of research texts and guidebooks and a few picture books here and there.  But it is worth googling these two for images  These two represent, to me, the ultimate cemetery experience, and anyone who has a chance to visit them should include them in their itinerary.


In your experience the best or most famous graveyard in the US?

The old cemeteries around New Orleans, or as they are called, “the Cities of the Dead”.  Because of the extremely high water table in this area, in ground burials just did not work.  A good rain or flood would cause the coffins in some cases  to literally explode out of the ground!  So, to avoid this, people were buried in crypts, mausoleums, wall ovens, etc. , and were re-used by family members down through time.  Many of the crypts and mausoleums resemble houses, churches, etc., and the sculptures and art on the structures is beautiful.  The way the larger cemeteries are laid out, they truly resemble small cities, with street signs and roadways!


Interpreting graveyard symbols:


20130105-025 Hands with fingers pointing up indicate the pathway to heaven.

Hands clasped indicate unity, marriage, devotion.

Hands holding axes or broken chains indicate a life cut short or a death that breaks the family chain.

Not as common is a hand with finger pointing down.  Knee jerk reaction might be that the person buried there went to someplace a bit hot.  However, it means God reaching down for the soul.

Winged skulls: Why are there really gruesome skulls and some are sun or angel like?

Depending on the location and age of the stone (usually 1700s to early 1800s and in the New England areas), the Puritans and other early settlers in the U.S. who had similar religious beliefs, used the winged skull image or death head as a way to remind people of their mortality, and also because they felt that this particular image could be considered a sacred but not graven image or an idolatrous image.  The skull images that incorporate a more angel-like appearance are another stylized version of the same ideal, and these are called Angels of Death.  Over time, these images morphed into the winged-cherub images we see in cemeteries of later eras.

20121223-01420121228-063  20121230-052 20121230-068

I am linking this post to letter ‘H for hands’ of round 6 of Alphabe- Thursday hosted by Jenny Matlock. If you have a moment please visit their websites and check out other bloggers’ work.
Jenny Matlock
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20 thoughts on “Graveyard Art II”

  1. Thanks so much for the series! I’ve always been fascinated by old Graveyards with headstones, but there aren’t too many in Southern California. My husband is originally from Maine and when we visit we see many graveyards. The graveyards are usually for the family that used to own the land, which I find to be so interesting.

    • It is really interesting to see how the culture surrounding burials already differs within the States. Thank you for stopping by, Natalie!

  2. Really interesting post! I’ve been fortunate enough to visit both the incredible grave yards in Paris and New Orleans, which although may sound a little creepy is actually spectacular! I love that Oscar Wilds grave in Paris is covered in lipstick marks as all the girls kiss it (for luck I think!) Incredible! Thanks for reminding me of some amazing things!

    • As Debbi says, next time I make it to London or Paris, I’ll be sure to visit. Debbi, is there anything ‘good’ in Berlin?

      • I never made it to Berlin while living in Germany, so I cannot say firsthand. But I have come across references to the Cemetery of Dorotheenstadt which is inside the City itself and the pictures I have seen are very interesting. I did get to one fabulous cemetery outside of Munich called thee Walfriedhof. That cemetery is large woodland type cemetery and has some very lovely statues in it. This was in the 1970s, and unfortunately the pictures I took are no longer useable. There was a huge oxidation problem with film in the late 1970s that turned many photos to orange.

  3. Interesting and I really like that last picture the best with the sun shining through the trees….not sure if it is dusk or dawn but it is just lovely and so peaceful!

    • It is actually dawn, Debra. I got up really early on that Sunday to get that sunlight. I think it paid off to crawl out of bed 🙂

    • Thanks for making your way here, Stacee. And I am really glad to find out that I am not the only one liking graveyard art 🙂

  4. Hallo Claudia,
    schöner Beitrag! Das fällt mir dazu ein:
    Hast Du es mal zum “Friedhof der Namenlosen” in Wien geschafft? Hier ist ein Beitrag dazu: Solche Friedhöfe gibt es sicherlich auch in vielen anderen Städten.
    Bei uns sind die Friedhöfe ja meist klein & überschaubar, in großen Städten darf man mit dem Auto auf den Friedhof fahren und es verkehren sogar Buslinien. Auch wenn das gerade für Gebrechliche wichtig ist, fühlt es sich für mich komisch an.
    In Kairo (wenn ich mich richtig erinnere) ist der Friedhof der größte Slum. Auch hier sind auf den Gräbern “Häuser” zum Besuchen der Toten errichtet worden – inzwische werden diese beowhnt, Elektrizität gibt es sogar auch. Ich habe das 1996 gesehen, inzwischen gibt es vielleicht sogar eine Kanalisation… fand das ziemlich krass…
    Hier sind ja Friedwälder oder auch Ruheforste stark im Kommen. Gibt es das in den USA auch?
    Liebe Grüße

    • Hey Catharina, schön mal wieder was von Dir zu lesen. Mir war gar nicht bewusst, daß Du schon so viel Erfahrung’ in Friedhöfen hast… ich bin ja eher der totale Novize. Das mit den Bussen und Autos kann ich sehr gut nachvollziehen. Ich geh immer auf google maps schauen und suche verzweifelt Parkplätze ausserhalb der Friedhöfe hier. Gibt es nicht. Kairo ist ja krass. Ehrlich gesagt, hab ich mir die Frage zu den Friedwäldern auch schon gefragt. Muss ich mal forschen, aber ich kann mir ehrlich gesagt nicht vorstellen, daß es das hier nicht gibt 🙂

  5. Fascinating. I especially enjoyed reading about the symbolism of hands and skulls on gravestones.

    Living out in So Cal, there aren’t many cool cemeteries, except Hollywood Forever . I definitely need to make a trip to New Orleans!

    Great information again, ladies and beautiful photographs. Looking forward to a part 3!! Thanks!

    • Hey Intri! I just posted to another California resident, Natalie, that there is a cemetery in Beaumont /Oakland California that might be worth a visit – Mountain View. Another I just now ran across in my book is Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma.

  6. Gosh, I didn’t know these facts at all.

    My favorite graveyards were in Boston.

    Or out in the country surrounded by weeds and the invasion of blackberry bushes!

    This was really a neat post!

    Thank you for linking it.



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