I can’t believe that today is our last day here at woodland! It really feels like the summer started just a few days ago. But I guess everything must come to an end.
Last few days were little slower than usual, but we still got a lot of things done! We didn’t start any major projects, of course, since we didn’t want to leave any stones unfinished. After all, there are only so many things you can get done within few days. So instead, we went back to fixing individual stones that need simple repairs. We stood up some monuments – the ones that had enough space between the end of the stone and the inscription because we don’t need a key for those – and we also edged multiple footstones. It is important to edge these stones once in a while because grass tend to cover them up with time. I guess we could say that these little actions we take can help us preserve more history, which is why I really enjoyed this summer job.
Now, time for some reflection:
I absolutely loved working at Woodland as a monument conservator. I learned so many things I would not have learned elsewhere. First, I may have lived most of my life in London, but I honestly did not know much about London’s history. Working here, I learned so much about London. What a rich history this city has to offer! I also learned various skills that I never imagined to learn. I remember that in the beginning of the summer, our boss, Paul, saying that there are only handful of people in Ontario, if not Canada, who knows how to restore monuments. And surprise – we (Alyssa, Peter, MacKenzie and I) are now a part of those handful number of people. Not only that, but I was able to hone my communication and problem-solving skills. I am sure all the valuable skills I learned from Woodland will come in handy at some point in my life.
Also, it was such as pleasure to work with all the staff here at Woodland. In one sentence: everyone was amazing. We were helped by a number of people and without them, we would not have been able to complete our projects. I don’t think I have ever met a better team to work with than the Woodland Team! Last but not least, I thank YOU for following our journey throughout the summer. I hope you enjoyed our journey as much as we did! We loved sharing our stories with you!!
As the days until we finish our summer as Monument Conservators rapidly decline, my colleagues and I have been attempting to complete some basic repairs of random stones around Woodland. Peter and Jonathon had an interesting find. A lot of the stones we encounter have broken at the base, and many of the bases are missing. They are typically under the ground or have been thrown away at some point over the years. We usually probe on either side on the ends of the stone for the base, and sometimes we get lucky. However, Peter and Jonathon were looking at a stone that had no sign of the base at either end. They decided to lift the stone and probe underneath, and to our surprise, the key was directly underneath the stone. This surprised us, but it was great because it gave us something fun to work on for our last two weeks.
We also completed the documentary today (and by we, I mean Sunny and Alyssa). That might be airing on Rogers TV, but will definitely be put up on Woodland Cemeteries official website!
I should also use my last post to work on my final reflections of my summer here. This was honestly the best student summer job I could have imagined. I grew up with my mum instilling in me a love of history and she taught me that cemeteries were a direct connection to our past. I think this summer has just taught me to respect them even more, to understand the sheer amount of work that went into each stone that we see. It continues to amaze me the talent of the stonecutters, who were using basic tools to produce these brilliant works of art.
I also appreciate the work that goes into running a cemetery now more than ever. The team at Woodland works so seamlessly and everyone is genuinely interested and happy to do what they do. My boss Paul says that you should be able to put yourself in the shoes of the loved ones and feel compassion, and the day you can’t do that anymore is the day you should leave. I’ve learned a lot from him this summer. Whether it is about the management of the cemetery or about the battles of the American Civil War, he is always eager to impart his knowledge to us, something that we always appreciate.
The other members of Woodlands team were also equally responsible for making this an amazing summer for my team. They were patient with us when we ‘accidently’ borrowed their equipment and forgot to put it back, and they were always interested to see what new projects we were working on and to help when they could. Everyone works so hard, but they always have time to be kind and lend a hand, which is valued more then I can say.
Then, of course, I can’t forget our teacher Tom Klassen, who taught us everything we knew. We definitely would not have gotten as far as we could without his wisdom, and we always enjoyed working with him. He is brilliant at what he does, and I am looking forward to helping him teach my Masters in Public History course a bit about Monument Restoration in the fall!
Overall, it has been a wonderful summer and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Thank you once again to everyone who helped make this summer the best of my University career.
As the summer draws to a close and this blog nears its end for the year, I’ll devote my final post to reflecting on my experiences at the cemetery. I’ve spent nearly four months in a cemetery this summer, and I still enjoy the looks I get when telling people what my summer job was. As cliche as it may sound this summer has taught me a great deal not only about what it takes to preserve history, but also on the kind of role a cemetery plays in every day human life.
Every day at Woodland our team has striven to preserve history, whether by physically repairing monuments that go back as far as the early 1800s, or by conducting research to uncover the stories of those the stones were made for. But over this summer, we were forced to approach history in a slightly different manner than we are used to as academics. As students, we were accustomed to writing history in an academic manner, presenting research to be critiqued by our instructors and fellow students. This work was seldom read outside of the confines of academia. The same is true for the vast majority of academic publishing. What set our time at Woodland apart was that we actively sought to bring history out of the academic setting and into the public setting, which turned out to be an entirely new challenge for us.
When working on the Scottish site, we developed our display in a way that allowed curious visitors to walk among the stones and clearly experience the relics themselves. When we repaired buried or broken stones, it was not because they yielded new knowledge to us, it was because we wanted them to be accessible for the next hundred years to curious onlookers. Our research was not presented in 12 point font, Times New Roman, and cited according to the Chicago Manual of Citations. (For those who don’t know, this is generally the default way to present research in social sciences) Instead, it was published on our blog, on our Facebook, and on our Instagram, and aimed at the general public. Presenting it in such a manner is a vastly different experience for us, and one that we had to adjust to. We spent less time concerned with ensuring our writing was of the proper tone, and more time attempting to share knowledge and stories as far as possible. It was an entirely new experience that forced us to develop our public speaking skills and our outreach skills. Even on days where we were exhausted from work, we forced ourselves to be presentable, friendly, and approachable to curious onlookers who might have a few questions about what our work entails. Or perhaps they were wondering what I was doing wandering into old cemetery sections carrying a shovel.
In addition to approaching history in such a new way, I also learned of what a cemetery has to offer a society. A cemetery does not exist to serve the dead. The dead do not require a gravestone, a casket, or an urn. They do not require a funeral service, and they are certainly incapable of demanding such things. We as human’s could dispose of our dead in a far more efficient way than we do, but we choose not to. This is because cemeteries exist primarily to serve the living. It is the living who place value in laying our loved ones to rest in a dignified manner. Loss of a family member or friend is something every human being experiences throughout their life. It is a traumatic experience, and cemeteries allow us to begin the process of celebrating one’s life, preserving their legacy, and healing our broken hearts. We are provided with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that a loved one’s remains will be cared for, will be protected, and will remain undisturbed. A tombstone allows us to preserve their legacy, again giving us the comfort of mind that their life was not in vain, that they are not forgotten. A dignified funeral service provides families with a vital sense of closure, that allows the healing process to begin. The living need a physical place to mourn, and to remember. The memorial to John Parkinson Jr. is one such example of this. If you have not read my previous blog post, it was about a 17 year old Union soldier who died at Atlanta during the American Civil War, but is memorialized here at Woodland. Unable to return their son’s body to London, the Parkinsons decided to erect a memorial for John anyways, to provide themselves with a place to mourn, and with a sense of closure.
When we repair gravestones and display them in a dignified matter, we are serving those family and friends who paid dearly to have their loved one memorialized long into the future. The fight against time is a battle we can’t win, eventually all of the stones we work on, and all of the stones at Woodland will crumble and decay. But if we continue to make them accessible for at least the next several generations, then we can feel that we have done our part in both fulfilling grieving families’ desires, and preserving history as well.
It has been a privilege to serve at Woodland over the past several months, and an experience I will never forget. I carry with me great memories, new skills, and a sense of accomplishment.
An ancient Greek proverb states “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.” I think it summarizes why monument conservation is a worthy pursuit well.
As the summer winds down, I have been thinking about how I have accomplished and learned so many more things than I could have possibly imagined at the beginning of the summer. We completed almost the entire project of the Scottish Cemetery (130 stones!), repaired and restored approximately a dozen others around the cemetery, including ones that were completely underground, and stood up thirteen of the gravestones from Old St Paul’s Cemetery. We put together a walking tour, each of us completed several radio/tv/newspaper interviews, and we helped uncover some of the lost history of Woodland Cemetery.
During our last few weeks, we will be doing a couple of things. We are wrapping up our final project (the standing of the corner stones in Section U), we are doing repairs to fallen gravestones around the cemetery (fallen or loose monuments), and we are hoping to finish up our video diary / documentary on tombstone archeology.
The video has been quite a challenge. Sunny and I have been learning to use Final Cut Pro, which has forced me to recall my high school days in media arts classes, and we have had to go out into the cemetery and get some final additional footage for the project. Regardless of whether it airs or not, I think that this part of the job has been the most challenging for me (I am not that great with technology), and may provide a great sense of satisfaction when it is complete. It encompasses most of the work we completed this summer, all the new skills we learned, our progressing thoughts and expectations of the job, and showcases our team’s deep appreciation for the history of Woodland Cemetery.
People don’t often acknowledge cemeteries. Yes, we drive by them on our way to work, the grocery store, and the movies, but we look past them. We don’t see the beauty within historical cemeteries such as Woodland and the history it holds. I think most of us don’t really think about them until we are forced to go under unfortunate circumstances. When I was younger, cemeteries terrified me. It was only two years ago, when I was living in Europe, did I discover my deep appreciation for cemeteries and the ways in which they preserve memory. Working at Woodland has been a fantastic experience and I have greatly enjoyed my time here. Our manager, and every member of staff at Woodland works hard to preserve the cemetery’s natural beauty, help people through difficult times in their lives, and ensure that everyone’s deceased loved ones are guaranteed a proper and respectful memorialization, in whatever way the family wishes to do it.
Our work is not yet done at Woodland Cemetery. Hopefully next year’s students will be able to carry on our work and finish the projects we did not get the chance to complete.
Located deep towards the back of Woodland Cemetery, in one of the ground’s oldest sections, lies a memorial to one John Parkinson Jr. A tall obelisk that dwarfs the graves of his parents buried beside him sheds light on the circumstances of his death. It reads “John, son of John and Bridget Parkinson, died at Atlanta, GA, October 15th 1864, aged 17 y’rs.”
Immediately, this inspires curiosity in the observer. Why is there a memorial to a 17 year old at Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario, when he died in Georgia? Although it was becoming more and more common for people from all walks of life to move about in the world, such an inscription still indicates interesting circumstances surrounding his death. At this point, anyone proficient in United States’ history will tell you that this was around the time of the Battle of Atlanta in the American Civil War.
Curious as to the possibility that John Parkinson may have served in the American Civil War I checked military records for anyone bearing his name. Immediately, I found a internment certificate that matched his name and age. As “John Parkinson” is a common name, the date of death was significant as it matched the date on his tombstone, confirming that this certificate did in fact belong to the Parkinson memorialized at Woodland. The document indicated that Parkinson had been buried in the Marietta National Cemetery, Georgia, and that he had a separate stone marking his actual burial location.
The document also sheds light on his experience during the Civil War. It indicates that John served as a private in the Union Army, a member of the 10th Michigan Infantry. Curiously, the 10th Michigan Infantry, which operated from 1862-1865, was a volunteer battalion. This suggests that John Parkinson willingly traveled south to fight in the bloodiest conflict in American history.
Parkinson’s cause of death is listed in Union Army records as well, indicating that he succumbed to typhoid fever at a general hospital near Atlanta rather than being killed in combat. At the time, disease could be a far greater killer in war than combat itself, the inevitable result of thousands of humans packed close together, with poor hygiene practices and inadequate medical care. In fact, of the 20 deaths listed on the same page as John Parkinson, only one of them was killed in action.
However, there are still several questions about John Parkinson’s story that are more difficult to answer, such as his motivations for volunteering for the Union Army in the first place. An agricultural census taken in 1861 indicates that John Parkinson Sr. was a farmer in the region at the time, holding 30 acres of land. As such, we can assume that John Parkinson Jr. came from humble origins, and may have seen military service as a way to earn a decent wage.
In a further step to uncover John Parkinson Jr.’s story, I accessed microfilm copies of the London Free Press from the Civil War Period, courtesy of Western University. While I did not track down any article describing a Londoner dying while serving the Union Army in the Civil War, there were several articles describing recruiting agents operating in the area. The Free Press alleged that recruiters were enticing young men from the area by painting an extremely enticing picture of life in the army, promising good wages and a dignified career. The article warned that such recruiters were not to be trusted, as some were not even representatives of the Union Army, but con artists seeking to steal the fee men paid for their uniforms and travel.
Based on such information it is entirely likely that John Parkinson Jr. was not content with his life as a farmer’s son for one reason or another, and instead traveled south to fight for the Union as a way of escaping from it. A recruiter may have played a prominent role in this decision, but that is uncertain. His parents, distraught as losing their son in a faraway land, chose to erect a monument at Woodland Cemetery so they could find a place to mourn and remember John. When the time came, they chose to be buried next to his monument.
I reached out to the 10th Michigan Re-enactment group, who still hold some files on the division, to see if any more details about his service could be revealed, however they could not provide me with anything new. Perhaps further research can uncover more details of what John experienced during his time serving in the army, as the story of a Londoner serving in the Union Army is certainly a unique one.
Sorry for not posting a blog yesterday! I hope you had a great long weekend (that is if you are reading this from Canada; so if not, hope you had a good weekend regardless!). Our week so far has been very productive.
We came to a realization this week that we got only 12 work days, as of August 09, left for the summer! Wow! Time really does fly. It seems like the first day we started our job – May 4th – was yesterday. I like to think that our team accomplished a lot of things during the three month period. Throughout the summer, we have been thoroughly video recording what we were doing. So cleaning, repairing, giving tours, etc. were all recorded!
Now, what are we doing with all these video footages, you may ask. We hope to make a documentary out of these footages to be aired on Rogers TV. For now, we are calling it the “Tombstone Archaeology” documentary. I think it will be very interesting given that our job is very interesting. So we are not too far in the process since we started editing it this week. But I would like to share the process we have made so far.
First, we, as a group, reviewed all the footages we have. It was both very enjoyable and embarrassing experience. Listening to all the conversations we had was pretty hilarious. And all those bloopers! They were very – and I mean VERY – funny. Of course, if we were making mistakes or were not successful doing some job and were caught on camera (for example, there is a footage of me failing to shovel), they were quite embarrassing to watch.
Then Alyssa and I, who are responsible for creating this documentary, created a general story line we want to tell through the documentary and labeled our footages accordingly. We believed we were on the right track. We had all the file numbers written down on a sheet of paper, and what could possibly go wrong?
Well, it was the file numbers that went wrong. As we were importing the video files to the program, Final Cut Pro, we are using, all the files renamed themselves. Video file #25 was no longer 25 but rather 20. This meant that Alyssa and I had to go through all the imported footages again to check if they were, in fact, the videos we wanted. When this was sorted out, we finally started editing the actual video! And this meant that we had to go through all the footages at least once more! We only did preliminary editing today. However, this was more tedious process than I had anticipated. All the side comments we made throughout the summer, made us laugh at the time, but editing those out… let’s just say it is less than pleasant. That being said, I am still enjoying the editing videos. I always enjoy learning new things! I can’t wait to finish editing them and share with you all.
For the past three months, we have learned a great deal about cemeteries. Our manager, Paul, is always eager to tell us everything he knows about the history of our cemetery and others around London, local historians such as Catherine McEwen and Dan Brock are eager to share their expertise on Middlesex County stonecarvers, and the librarians, archivists, and others working in the many libraries and archives we have visited alway seem pleased to see us and interested in our latest research. Everyone we have encountered has been extremely helpful in providing information and support in our efforts to uncover more and more Woodland Cemetery history.
As stated in the last blog post, Woodland was forced to move twice due to city expansion. Originally it was a church graveyard, but because it became overcrowded, a park-style cemetery was established outside city limits, where it was eventually overtaken by building and moved again to Woodland Park. These park-style cemeteries originated in Britain and were quickly picked up in the United States and Canada as well. Mourning was in fashion in the Victorian age, Queen Victoria’s mourning of her husband for much of her life influenced the way people thought of death and dying. Beautiful stone tablets were created as memorials for deceased loved ones and elaborate mourning customs were established to celebrate the dead. Death was romanticized, and was viewed as a natural part of life for the Victorians (see references to Victorian post-mortem photography). Cemeteries reflected this. While cities expanded and land within city limits became more desirable for living space, cemeteries were moved outside of cities to large parks for space and beautiful surroundings.
A few park-style cemeteries in England eventually became run down and repurposed into open spaces for the public. Gravestones were taken down or demolished and most signs that a cemetery was ever present vanished.
Woodhouse Cemetery at the University of Leeds is a strange place. If one visits, it does not seem like a cemetery at all. The original stones that survived the area’s transformation are placed along a short path near one of the entrances and placed close together. The tiles that make up the walk way around the cemetery’s original chapel list the names of people who are buried in the field, with anywhere from one to around twenty on each stone. In the image above, you can see there is writing on the path (people’s names).
The Victorian cemetery allowed for people to openly celebrate the beauty of death. They would take picnics to the cemetery, visit their deceased loved ones, and make a day of it. They showcased the art of the day and popularized the idea of public parks for socializing and relaxing. They served as a beautiful quiet space inside of rapidly expanding, industrializing, and dirty cities.
However, the First World War ended this desire for park-style cemeteries. Death was no longer celebrated as young men died by the thousands, and death became viewed as more brutal, terrifying, and unknown. Cemeteries became quieter places, the sheer volume of deaths taking place during the war caused thousands of monuments to be erected in cemeteries to commemorate the brave sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands who fought for their country. Stones lost their unique artistry as death became less personal. Mourning became more private and with that, personality left the cemeteries.
For the past two weeks, a lot has been going on at Woodland Cemetery. For us, we decided to start another project that would take us until the end of the summer. For those of you that know the cemetery well, in the northeast corner, there are approximately thirty stones that are lying down on the ground. These stones have been here since before anyone can remember, and they’ve been deteriorating over the decades. Likely, they’ve been lying down since the 1880’s when they were moved from the St. Pauls cemetery (where the Western Fair Grounds are today) to Woodland. When we decided to tackle them, many were in a severely deteriorated stage, but some we identified as excellent candidates to repair.
Before we began taking them out of the ground, we first had to decide where we would place them. We considered standing them just behind where they were found. However, we quickly scrapped that idea because the ground is slopped and we didn’t want to deal with the lean the stones would develop. I mean, they will develop a lean within a few decades, but it would happen on the sloped ground much faster. The other option was to either find an empty plot nearby or use an old walkway where no one would have been buried. After a lot of searching through plot books, we eventually decided on an empty plot that is close to our Scottish cemetery display.
Once we decided on a place, we started to bring the stones up the hill, clean them off, and then start the process of placing them back on the ground. Since we are not using keys or bases, we have to bury the stones quite deep in the ground. Depending on the stone, that can be anywhere from a foot to two feet. Its truly exhausting having to dig two feet down, especially when you constantly hit tree roots and layers of clay. Once the hole is dug, we place the stone in, level it, then fill the hole with a bunch of lime shale to make it stable. It’s a long process, but it’s worth it in the end.
We are nowhere near finished, but it is starting to come together. It almost looks like a mini cemetery within the larger one. We’re trying to keep the rows as uniform as possible and keep a good distance between them, but everything is working out!
In addition to repairing the stones, we’re also trying to find information about the people they belong to. The archivist at St. Pauls Cathedral recommended we go to Huron University College because they hold the Diocese of Huron Archives, of which St. Paul’s is included. Last Friday we went and with the help of the staff there, we were able to find a lot of information. They had the original burial, baptism, and marriage registers. They also had a lot on what previous researchers had found about the history of Woodland. It was very informative, and we’re planning on returning tomorrow to see what we can find.
One other interesting development is that we were shown the old vault that they have at Woodland. It was originally used to hold money since Woodland was nowhere close to anywhere, but over time it has turned more into storage for old documents. It was really interesting to see what they keep, such as receipts for plots and stones that date back to the 1880’s. We also found the old transfer receipts for when graves and stones were being moved from St.Pauls, which was a cool find. Plus, some old photographs, one was even from Victory in Europe day, 1945.
Well, that’s it for today! Alyssa should be back on Friday for a continuation of her “History of Cemeteries” blog from a few weeks ago, so stay tuned for that!
Edit: In my original post I simply referred to The Diocese of Huron Archives as the archives at Huron University College. The blog has been changed to reflect their true title. If you are interested in researching at The Diocese of Huron Archives, located at Huron University College, their email is as follows; email@example.com.
I am sure you have been enjoying some of our historical blog posts, but today I thought I would simply update you on what we have been doing. For the past few weeks after we finished our Scottish site – by the way, the transcript from the stones found at the site has been released, which can be found HERE – we went around the old sections of the cemetery, probing for stones, finding stones, and repairing stones.
One of the discoveries our team made was also the gravestone of Charles Sturgess. Alyssa, MacKenzie and I initially thought it was a small project, which turned out to be wrong. Our initial evaluation was that it merely needed a simple repair.
We planned to simply attach the piece fallen off from the footstone back on it and raise the footstone a bit. But as we were edging around the footstone to raise it up, we were hitting another stone. We weren’t really sure what could be there because there normally isn’t a thing between a headstone and a footstone. What we discovered was something completely unexpected. There were two stones that ran across from the headstone to the footstone. And the ends of the stones were attached to the headstone and footstone! (I will now refer to these stones as “borders”) So, as it turned out to be a bigger project than Alyssa, MacKenzie, and I have anticipated, Peter and Jonathon joined us to help.
After digging out all the dirt around the stones, we realized the borders made the grave look like a child’s crib. It was something that I had never seen. Our team eventually brought up the borders and footstones; cleaned stones; repaired any damage (including our initial objective – attaching the part of the footstone that had fallen off. We suspect that there used to be a garden in the empty space. We do not think that we can re-create the garden that was there, but we are planning on making it look better than how it looks in the picture for sure! We have poured top soil on it and we will be planting grass seeds in the near future.
A few days later, I went on to London Room in the Central branch of London Public Library to research little more about the person buried in the grave stone. The plot belonged to Charles Sturgess, who passed away at the age of four. Due to this age, my research was not as fruitful as I hoped it to be. However, there were few things I found out. Charles was born in Croydon, Surrey, England. And his family, of course, was part of the Church of England. It seems that his family moved from England to London, Canada after 1871 since the family does not appear on census records. However, City directories from 1873 indicate that the family was definitely living in the area by 1873, a year before Charles’ death. Charles died from diseases called croup (official medical term: laryngotracheobronchitis).
Croup is a type of respiratory infection that occurs mostly among children between the age of 6 months and 5. Croup’s initial symptoms are very similar to common flu. It causes a patient to cough, fever, and runny nose. I, personally, had never heard of the disease named croup prior to conducting this research. I learned that croup is still fairly common in nowadays, but it is preventable with a vaccine. Before vaccination, croup was often related to diphtheria and was very fatal.
Now, that is the end of the story I wanted to share for today. But before I end the blog, I would like to inform you that we have found ourselves another big project. I no longer have space to elaborate this big project on this blog so I will leave it to the next person who writes a blog post. So stay tuned!
The Victorians and the Byzantines were both vastly different societies, yet to compare the ways in which they approached death and mourning is extremely interesting. The Victorians, the English who lived during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), were very strict about their funeral customs. The Byzantines, on the other hand, were the Eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire that surrounded the Mediterranean. This empire lasted significantly longer than the Victorian era, from 330 CE – 1453. While extremely different in their methods of burial, especially interesting was just how similar they were about the decoration of their loved one’s final resting places.
Whereas Victorians predominately buried their dead similar to how we would today, cremation was the principal method of burial for the Byzantines until the 2nd century. The transition to inhumation (to inter the dead) only came when it became difficult to find fuel for the fires. When cremations ‘died out’, the development of catacombs became important in the Holy Roman Empire due to lack of available surface space. While cremation was the most efficient and space-saving method, catacombs were the next best choice. The Byzantines hired individuals to dig their catacombs, called Fossors, and they very quickly transitioned into quite elaborate burial spaces. The surface area of the walls allowed for loved ones to create elaborate funeral art for their deceased, art that would represent the ideals that were most dear to them. The artwork used primarily depended on their religion and while it was possible that multiple religions would use the same catacomb, each chamber would often be dedicated to separate religions.
Byzantium’s beginnings were not in Christianity, but in Paganism and Judaism, but all three religions are represented in their catacomb artwork. As Christianity was illegal in Rome until the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, Christians would often have to hire Pagan or Jewish artists and ask them to paint scenes from the Old Testament, as they followed both the old and the new. They would also adopt pagan motifs as a way to not raise suspicion. The fish (Ichthys), had been used by many religions prior and had therefore not risen suspicion. The story of Orpheus was often used to represent Christ. One of the most famous aspects of the Orpheus myth is the story of Orpheus’s descent into Hades to rescue his love Eurydice, who had been snatched from him by an untimely death. While he was ultimately not successful in recovering Eurydice, he himself emerged from the underworld alive. This particular aspect of the myth resonated with early Christians, who saw this as an allegorical reference to Christ’s descent into and return from the fiery depths of hell. Orpheus thus became a symbol of victory over death, and a symbol of eternal life.
Once it was legalized, scenes from the New Testament, such as Jesus and the Woman of Samaria at Jacob’s Well, became popular. Also used were the symbols of the dove, the anchor, and the cross (Christos). All of these symbols had profound meaning, often taken from scripture. For instance, the anchor a symbol of hope in future existence because the anchor was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety. In other words, it represents Christianity’s firm belief in eternal life, their hope of their future existence in heaven.
Another central theme to Christian Catacomb art was death and resurrection. Through the use of Old Testament imagery, they focused on alluding to post-death salvation. An example of this is the story of Jonah being swallowed by the fish, then three days later being vomited back out. This was seen by early Christians as a resurrection story. The message being: “Save me [Lord] as you have saved Jonah from the belly of the great fish.”
Jewish frescos would often depict a Menorah, the Arch of the Covenant,, the Shofar (horn), the Lulav (branch/twigs), etc. They would also use scenes from the Old Testament, often making it difficult to tell the difference between a Jewish and Christian tomb.
Pagan artwork would use the symbols of the Putti, the peacock (immortality as the peacock’s flesh did not decay, or so they believed) and the phoenix (rebirth), while also taking scenes from Roman/Greek myths and legends to declare their beliefs. For instance, the scene of Hercules leading Alcestis to her husband Admetus in the Catacombs of Via Latina. This scene is commemorating a wives loyalty to her husband during his illness, that she would have given up her life to save him, as Alcestis does for Admetus in the legend (see below). Though it should also be mentioned that both Judaism and Christianity took pagan symbols and shaped them for their own, as can be seen in the photo above this paragraph where a Jewish catacomb is showcasing icons of the peacock.
As can be seen, unlike Victorian monument symbols, there is no virtually no reference to sorrow or mourning in Byzantine catacomb art. The majority of the focus is on the religiosity, the life that the deceased lived, or their death and resurrection (which was not considered something to be in sorrow about).
The Victorians, however, seemed to do the opposite. Not much of the artwork decorating their monuments is overtly religious, though much of it has religious connotations. Icons such as the willow tree, the rose, the laurel and clasped hands are extremely common at Woodland Cemetery, and each of them has a separate meaning. As Levi mentioned in an earlier post, the Victorians were fixated on symbolism, and when they erected a gravestone for a loved one, they wanted to make sure it reflected something of that person’s disposition, their career, their relationships, or their life. The willow tree, symbolizing mourning, is an example of how much Victorian death rites focused on the mourning and loss that the loved one’s family was feeling. A broken column stands for an individual who was cut off in the prime of life, often the head of the family. The clasped hands were religious as well, showing the hope of re-unification in the next life.
Overall, although the two societies lived centuries apart, there are commonalities in their mourning customs. Byzantine art, while overtly religious, often has hidden meanings about the deceased’s life. Victorian symbolism, while not usually obviously religious, also was carved in the belief that the monument should reflect not only the life of the deceased but the sorrow of the loved ones. Both used artwork as a way to depict a life lived and lost, and to show their dedication even after death.
Sidenote: Thanks for reading this blog post! I know that it’s different from other weeks, but we spend so much time with Victorian symbols that I thought it would be interesting to see how a different culture would approach mourning artwork.