There was a time in the last third of the nineteenth century—i.e., in the late romantic era—when rustic cemetery monuments reigned supreme. Stone cairns and vast withered tree trunks were commissioned everywhere. Some examples are better than others; the Hunter monument in Laurel Hill Cemetery (figures 1, 2), at about 10 feet tall, is a noble, landmark example of the rustic stone look; I think it dates to about 1895. A few comparative examples will show how outstanding it is.

Monuments carved to resemble a pile of stones —I’ll just call them ‘cairn monuments’ are quite common. In marble, the stones tend to look just a little too neat (figure 3), though sometimes, as in the Barranger monument (figures 4, 4a) one finds labored diagonal patterns meant to give visual interest and boost the feel of rusticity.

I suppose the difference is one between a cairn imagined made from manicured blocks as opposed to one made on the spot in nature. The artist’s skill and temperament, tools used, and type of rock imagined will all have their part to play, as well. The Barranger monument carries the rustic look through with admirable consistency by adding a cross made of a lopped trunk. The cupid is just a bonus.

The Hunter cairn is carved almost to evoke the feel of living rock. It’s clearly a heap of granite boulders, their roughness notionally keeping them together despite the strong diagonals in stacking favored by the artist. You can see a more modest granite cairn here and reproduced in figure 5. Sometimes the rustic look finds expression in a single massive boulder as in the Bertolette monument in Arlington National Cemetery and the clever Bates boulder in Druid Ridge in Pikesville, MD.

The Hunter cairn’s laughably vast polished scroll with anagraphic data, tall as a grown human, forms here, as in several other examples I’ve cited, a neat contrast with the matte roughness of the cairn itself. The artist has achieved a sort of ‘crunchy’ effect with the surname, which stands out in polished rectilinear font against a rougher, matte register behind it and the rustic boulders immediately behind that.

Still, the big payoff in the Hunter cairn is its towering excess, comparable, I think, to the deep investment of the Lloyd family in the rustic tree style in their family plot in Hollywood Cemetery. Anything done to such excess is inherently interesting, and the Hunter monument goes so far beyond the norm that I think it falls into the category of unintentional camp.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

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