Generally I am bored by religiously-themed funerary monuments because they are highly conventional—there’s little to surprise or delight in them. Sometimes religious art, for example in a stained glass mausoleum window, can be so well done as to be visually interesting. Still, for the most part, when people are in a mood to select religious ornamentation for a tomb, piety shuts their higher brain functions down and the platitudes roll forth. I am, of course, talking about American tombs of the gilded age here.

Figure 1. Bates monument. Druid Ridge Cemetery, Pikesville, MD. Photo: author.

Which is why I rather liked this monument in Druid Ridge Cemetery just west of Baltimore. It is a pretty big boulder that looks like dirty granite. Figure 1 was shot with my camera held as high above my head as possible–probably about 8 feet off the ground. The inscription that whimsically weaves its way across the “top” of the monument reads:

THEY ROLLED A GREAT STONE TO THE DOOR OF THE SEPULCHRE

And below it is anagraphic data, likewise in a plain script that meanders as though compelled by the topography of the stone:

JOSEPH ANSON BATES
1838-1908
SARA NEWMAN BATES
1838-1909
CLARA NEWMAN TURNER
1844-1920

The cutter who came along and added Clara’s date of death in 1920 was very much not in the spirit of the monument—see the witlessly straight dash and the absurd spacing of the numbers, alas.

The main inscription is a biblical verse, drawn from Mt. 27:60, which in the King James version reads:

And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.

Our friends the Bateses, or more likely Sara, after Joseph’s death, particularized the verse to themselves by making “he” into “they.” The conceit appears to be that the Bateses have rolled the stone over their grave, and like the grave in the biblical story, one day we’re gonna wake up and find it empty.

You’ll find any number of angels and or Marys at the tomb repetitiously dotting the landscape. Gutzon Borglum’s Rabboni in The Ffoulke monument in Rock Creek Cemetery is a good example (figure 2):

Figure 2. Gutzon Borglum, Rabboni. Ffoulke monument, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

. . . and the Rementer mausoleum in West Laurel Hill avoids the worst clichés of the scene with some crazy perspective and the conceit that we are an additional (voyeuristic) observer at the critical moment (figure 3). Check out the surreal Hollywood-style angel inside the door:

Figure 3. Rementer mausoleum. Detail: window: The Marys at the tomb. West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA. Photo: author.

The monuments in figures 2 and 3 are not bad, even if they are clichés. But the Bateses have avoided cliché by creating a tomb that capitalizes in a clever way on a rather unpromising verse (everyone else stampeding to later verses and the “reveal,” so to speak). The Bates monument is not showy, and it’s not high art, but I was delighted to find it.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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