Deciphering the Graven Messages of the Dead

Captured in marble in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is the last time Charles Griffith saw his wife Jane alive on August 4, 1857. She is standing on the steps of their 13th Street brownstone in Manhattan; the door behind her is ajar and a small dog awaits her return. Wisteria climbs over a trellis and by the cast-iron fence lining the property, Charles is saying his goodbyes. Around the corner, the Sixth Avenue horse-drawn streetcar is visible, waiting to take him to work. By the time he returned home, she was dead from a heart attack at the age of forty-one.

In a 1954 article for the New York Times, the great New York journalist Meyer Berger wrote about the unusual tomb, noting that the “legend is dim now, but Green-Wood men have passed it down for almost one hundred years.”[1] According to lore, Charles hired Italian sculptor Patrizio Piatti to study the house (since demolished and turned into a parking garage) and a photograph of Jane to best preserve her memory in stone. For the next twenty-five years of Charles’s life, he “made weekly pilgrimage to Green-Wood to study the monument” until he was buried there in 1882.

The incredibly detailed tribute to Jane Griffith is a unique expression of grief. Yet it’s surrounded by hundreds of thousands of equally personal memorials to the departed. Some are simple blocks of granite with just a name and a couple of dates joined by a dash; others are lavish. A stone’s throw from the Griffith grave is the elaborate marble tomb of Charlotte Canda who died in a carriage accident on her seventeenth birthday in 1845. A statue of Canda, said to be dressed in the gown she wore that tragic night, stands in a tabernacle-style tomb surrounded by a shrine of symbolism reflecting her life, sudden death, and the belief in a hereafter. Behind her head, a star blazes—a shining light even in the darkness of death—and butterflies, whose metamorphosis is a metaphor for the transition from a mortal body to a heavenly plane, rise above roses, a common representation of a young woman cut down in her bloom. Evergreen ivy, a sign of eternity, is sculpted on the Gothic spires that rise on either side of her sculpture.

I have spent a lot of time walking and photographing graveyards. In my home state of Oklahoma, I explored pre-statehood burial grounds where the most beautiful tombstones are for children, some of whom only lived for days. With great care, lambs and doves were erected in memory of their brief lives, a moving attention to their passing amidst the daily hardships of life in boomtowns and farmland. While traveling, I always make time to stop in a local cemetery, whether atmospheric destinations like Père Lachaise in Paris or quieter places such as a cemetery in Beirut still bearing scars from war. In New York City, where I’ve lived for the past ten years, I lead tours at Green-Wood Cemetery and other burial grounds and wander the colonial churchyards, former sites of potter’s fields, and sprawling Victorian cemeteries. These spaces offer a glimpse of a place’s past that’s often invisible on the present-day streets. Through the tombstones, and the places without memorials due to economic or societal marginalization, there is a chronicle of what people have believed, what they wanted to be remembered, and how they treated the dead.

In particular, I am drawn to the symbolism and how it has changed, always communicating something to the living through the memorialization of the dead. Jane Griffith and Charlotte Canda were both buried at a time of shifting ideas around mortality. In the early days of colonial New York, the tombstones were not sentimental. The oldest known headstone in Manhattan is the 1681 grave of Richard Churcher, who died at age five. On one side is his name, and on the other is a skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass. Unlike the later Victorian tombstones for children, there is no sense of innocence or differentiation between his grave and the others that surround it at Trinity Churchyard. It joins a chorus of stones reminding viewers of their mortality and that their own final judgment will soon arrive.

This message of “Sic transit gloria mundi”—“So passes the glory of the world”—can be seen on tombs going back to antiquity and up through the Middle Ages where cadaver monuments, or transi, that depicted the deceased as rotting corpses, regularly appeared in churches. The European funerary art that traveled with colonists to the future United States was similarly focused on the transience of life. In late 17th-century American cemeteries, tombstones often appear macabre with their carved skeletons lounging with scythes, snuffing out candles, holding empty hourglasses, and gnawing on bones. The message is not hard to decipher. One of the most popular epitaphs was: “As you are now / So Once was I / As I am now / So you must be / So prepare for Death / And Follow me.”

This Puritanical attitude towards death started to soften in 18th-century America. Events like the Great Awakening saw Protestantism focus on salvation as well as a more personal spirituality. In this century, the winged death’s head was gradually replaced with a cherubic face. Time was still fleeting, but the emphasis on the decay of flesh was gone.

In the 19th century, the rural cemetery movement emerged, and with it landscapes that were as much parks as burial grounds. Cemeteries were a reaction to the overcrowding of urban churchyards; showing the influence of 18th-century English gardens and European burial grounds like Père Lachaise, 19th-century cemeteries usually had no official attachment to a church, meaning what people chose for their memorials was even more personal. The first in the United States was Mount Auburn, established in 1831 with the support of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and many others followed, including Laurel Hill in Philadelphia in 1836 and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1838.

With more space than the old churchyards, cemeteries came with grander monuments that manifested a new attitude toward death. Even the name “cemetery,” derived from the Greek “sleeping place,” was new, supplanting the more visceral “burying ground.” Sculptures of sleeping people regularly appeared on tombs, indicating that death was a sleep from which one would wake. The rise of Spiritualism in the 1840s, which offered séances as a way to contact the dead, also reinforced this idea that the veil between life and death was thin. And the rise of embalming further removed the idea of decay from death, with portraiture on tombs and air-tight coffins all attempting to protect the body from the way of all flesh.

This all led to a symbolic language that emphasizes the afterlife and a belief in a future reunion rather than mortal transience. Open gates and angels visualize the passage into the afterlife; hands reach between the graves of friends and lovers. Some of these hands are joined with the text “until we meet again,” and almost always it appears as if one is holding on a little looser than the other as if letting go or reaching to lead the one left behind to follow. A sheaf of wheat can appear rather grim, especially when accompanied with the word “HARVESTED,” but it usually indicates someone who lived a long and fruitful life, with a suggestion of resurrection in the grain which can be planted again. Inverted torches declare that life may have passed, but the soul survives in the next realm. These symbols were further reinforced through a new funerary industry. Whereas colonial tombstones were mostly carved as a side hustle by local craftsmen, in the 19th century there were new monument companies that mass-produced memorial objects decorated with these symbols.

Most of these symbols did not originate in cemeteries, although the setting sometimes caused their meaning to change. Whereas a laurel wreath in the ancient world may indicate triumph in battle, in a cemetery it declares victory over death (this eternity reinforced by its evergreen leaves). Obelisks borrowed from the iconography of ancient Egypt lost their pagan associations and instead drew the eye upward in a reminder of heavenly ascension.

Just like Jane Griffith’s tomb sculpted over 150 years ago, each memorial, from a hulking replica of a Roman temple to a humble fieldstone, is a weapon against forgetting. In the cemeteries of every city and town are stories in this symbolic language, speaking through the breach between life and death.



[1]Berger, Meyer. “About New York.” The New York Times, December 3, 1954. Accessed October 22, 2019.