Feature Image: Cemeteries/headstones. Newton, MA. Memento mori, headstone c. 197-90. Newton Free Library via Digital Commonwealth.
The earliest recorded grave markers date back to 3,000 B.C. Researchers have discovered much earlier evidence of floral tributes on burial sites. Humans have honored their dead throughout our existence on Earth. Often, funerary art overshadows this practice. but it offers a unique and captivating perspective on the human condition and our ceaseless fascination with the afterlife. The artistry that adorns graves, mausoleums, and memorial sites has served as a testament to our collective yearning to remember, honor, and immortalize those who have passed on.
The memorials we use to commemorate those we have lost have a rich history of art, culture, and symbolism. These markers serve as memorials and artistic expressions of life’s remarkable stories. They stand out in bleak, uniform cemeteries, making them popular tourist destinations.
Headstones, also known as tombstones or gravestones, date as far back as 3,000 BC, but it wasn’t until the 1600s that they became common in cemeteries and churchyards. Used initially for upper-class graves, as Protestantism expanded, their use has expanded to all gravesites.
Throughout history, many different materials have been used for gravestones. For example, during the American Civil War, wooden headstones were typical. However, marble soon became the preferred material as it was more durable. Gravestones contain numerous religious and cultural symbols. For example, images of books and scrolls symbolize religious faith. Angels represent the soul’s transition to heaven. Lambs represent innocence or young age. In short, gravestones tell us a lot about the person they memorialize and about ourselves through our interaction with them.
Some of the most distinct and elaborate gravestones memorialize famous artists and writers. Others belong to ordinary people whose families dedicated beautiful sculptures to honor them in the afterlife. Join us in recounting the narratives of these renowned gravesites and the captivating funerary art that beckons tourists to commemorate their occupants.
Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright known for his wit, flamboyance, and jail sentence for a same-sex relationship. The historic Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in the heart of Paris, is where his grave is located. Sculptor Jacob Epstein designed the monument’s winged angel to reflect the late author’s interest in Egyptian art. Once the monument was unveiled, Parisian officials discreetly covered it in fear that the naked angel was too risque for public view. Traditionally, fans of Wilde’s work kissed the monument, leaving it covered in red graffiti of lipstick stains and hearts. Since the 1990s, this trend has defaced and eroded the memorial. In 2011, the Irish government paid for a barrier to protect it. The glass fence worked for some time until it was covered in lipstick as well. Today, the monument is a testament to Wilde’s influence on the literary world and his dedicated fans.
Jules Verne wrote many adventure novels, including Journey to the Center of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. He is often called the “father of science fiction.” His grave rests at La Madeleine Cemetery in Amiens, France. 2 years after Verne’s death, his ordinary tomb was transformed into a masterpiece when sculptor Albert Roze erected a statue on the gravesite. The statue, titled Towards Immortality and Eternal Youth, depicts a man pushing his way out of the grave and reaching to the sky. The sculpture has become a tourist attraction for the city of Amiens, which features the tomb on its tourist website.
Laurence Matheson was not a particularly famous or influential figure. Today, the Australian man who died in 1987 is known for the immaculate sculpture on his grave. In 1979, Matheson met sculptor Peter Shipperheyn at an art exhibit. Matheson commissioned a life-size sculpture of his wife, which was so massive it required eight people to transport it to his garden. Over the years, the two remained in contact, and Matheson commissioned another massive sculpture. In 1987, Matheson became sick and died. His widow, Christina, commissioned a final Shipperheyn piece for her husband, a sleeping female nude titled Asleep. The lifesize sculpture rests upon Matheson’s grave. Her hair melts into the stone as she lies upon the grave for eternity, evoking a peaceful awareness of the solitude of death and mourning.
Young Raymond Tse from Linden, New Jersey, dreamed of owning a Mercedes Benz but was killed in an automobile accident at age 15. Others say his brother promised to buy him a Mercedes when he got his driver’s license. The resting place of Tse lies on 40 cemetery plots in the Rosedale Cemetery. But what makes the young boy’s grave stand out is the massive life-size sculpture of a Mercedes Benz 240 in the back of the grave, complete with a personalized license plate. An artist chiseled the sculpture from a single granite block, but its origins remain mysterious. There exists a Chinese custom where if someone dies before you can fulfill a promise made to them, you must try your best to keep that promise to the deceased. Thus, the dead Ray got a Mercedes in his mausoleum.
Young Raymond Tse from Linden, New Jersey, dreamed of owning a Mercedes Benz but was killed in an automobile accident at age 15. Others say his brother promised to buy him a Mercedes when he got his driver's license. Tse's resting place lies on 40 cemetery plots in the Rosedale Cemetery. But what makes the young boy's grave stand out is the massive life-size sculpture of a Mercedes Benz 240 in the back of the grave, complete with a personalized license plate. An artist chiseled the sculpture from a single granite block, but its origins remain mysterious. There exists a Chinese custom where if someone dies before you can fulfill a promise made to them, you must try your best to keep that promise to the deceased. Thus, the dead Ray got a Mercedes in his mausoleum.
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