Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Signs and symbols

The ultimate lesson of a cemetery, I suppose, is that we are all, inevitably, dead meat, rich and poor, renowned --- or not.

That's a harsh lesson, but an honest one that invites elaboration. For people of faith, death is the portal to eternal life and what could be more encouraging than that? For people of faith and for people of little or no faith, reminders of life's transitory nature can serve as a prod to seize the day and live it fully.

Our ancestors were inclined, when they could afford it, to use tombstone art not only to characterize a grave's occupant but to teach. I like to collect good examples of this with a camera when I find them while wandering around in graveyards.

Take the tombstone of Artamissa Sheets, for example, which is located in the Masonic Union Cemetery just northeast of Eagleville, Missouri, a little town along Interstate 35 a few miles south of the Iowa border.

We know from the inscription that she was the wife of A. J. (Andrew J.) Sheets and that she died 26 April 1871 at the age of 36 years, 8 months and 9 days.

The eptaph elaborates:

As a wife devoted;
As a mother affectionate;
As a friend ever kind and true;
In life she exhibited all the graces of a Christian;
In death her redeemed spirit returned to God who gave it.

A hand pointing skyward holding a rose completes the tribute, and lesson, in marble. There's nothing enigmatic about that finger pointed up, intended to remind passers by both of the direction in which Artimissa departed and of the advisability of turning one's thoughts to heaven, too.

The rose can be interpreted several ways --- as representing the redeeming blood of Christ, a life cut short while in full bloom, a love that remained fresh and enduring in spite of death. If this were a Roman Catholic cemetery, which it isn't, it might have Marian associations.

Artimissa's stone is located companionably next to that of her husband, Andrew, who outlived her by 36 years. His stone is far plainer. We can tell something about him from the stone he commissioned for his wife, but from his own stone --- only that he was a Mason.

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