GRAVELY ARTISTIC – CEMETERY ICONOGRAPHY

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This month we explore the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals in relation to tombstone art and in particular, the meanings of animal symbols and meanings.

Cemeteries are in often taken for granted as representing the final resting places of our loved ones but if you look closely at the headstones, crypts, mausoleums and statues, particularly in older cemeteries, you will art forms defining an architectural and tranquil beauty and hidden meanings. Embedded in these memorials are symbols, often animal totems used to guard the dead from the living or the living from the dead depending your particular point of view. Symbols unite the dead with an ongoing cultural existence they once inhabited and as such may relate to something specific or interpretative within that society. These aspects define cultural norms, status, religious identification and association. Tombstone art requires a degree of careful research to uncover the mystery of who the deceased person was in relation to their chosen animal or totem.

Animals represent explicit characteristics according to species which may be ascribed to the deceased to measure or mark their qualities as a person in life. Birds in particular are seen as winged souls being divine messengers, representing peace, purity and the soul.

Specific birds have recognised and assigned meanings for example eagles are symbolic of the power and strength, courage and valour while owls suggest diligence, wisdom and intelligence. Roosters signify awakening or resurrection. Doves are messengers of peace and love.

Butterflies are our pysche or soul. The meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of the butterfly – the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly. The three stages are symbols of life, death and resurrection thus representing metamorphosis to the afterlife through resurrection.

Interestingly there are many other animals to which resurrection has been ascribed including dolphins and curiously snakes or serpents presumably because they cheat death and gain vigour and renewal by shedding their skins. They also represent eternity by forming the perfect circle or oroboros with its own tail in its mouth.

Dogs of course are man’s best friend implying the owner is worth loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness and vigilance.

The use of animals in tombstone art makes us aware we are not alone in our existence but share it with other species in a state of mutual interdependence to find comfort and companionship. The animals we select to represent our departed loved ones not only offer solace in our initial grief and sadness but also consolation in future remembrance. These totems are how we choose to remember a loved one in a commemoration of their being.