The Titanic reference refers to how the handsome Slifer monument in Union Cemetery in Flourtown, PA (a hair north of Philly) is sinking into the earth. You know me well enough to surmise that at first I hoped it would turn out to be a seated portrait, but it turns out to be a conventional figure of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, very much in keeping with this kleinbürgerlich cemetery.

Figure 1. Slifer monument. Union Cemetery, Flourtown, PA. Photo: author.

There is no curb around the complex showing the property lines, but there is a more than normally weighty threshold to the plot. The actual step into the plot is beveled with the name Slifer in high-ish relief.

If you look closely you’ll see that the serifed letters, in caps, are not square like the name on the base of the monument proper. My photo only shows half of the letters, but they are more of a curvy art nouveau font. Different again is the font of the giant ‘S’s that mark the two front sides of the threshold stone; not as squiggly as the nearby Slifer, they are not as square as those on the monument.

The carved caps on the edges of the threshold stone have what look like lobes of some sort exuding from a prismiform top. The lobe-y form is seen here and there, as in examples from Hollywood, West Laurel Hill, and Forest Lawn Cemeteries (figures 2, 3, 4): its organic form seems to stem from Art Nouveau.

Turning to the monument proper, it consists of a die with a modestly complicated cap and an interesting series of indented lines in the curved molding below. From the sides of the die, and adding visual weight to it, extend wings consisting of three torus moldings that have been worked into a rustic texture and a beveled cap atop them. The base and foundation support wings and die (which are monolithic).

Anagraphic data is pared down on the die, where the font is a simple, easily legible sans-serif font, though the letters do grow a little fatter in their extremities. This contrasts strongly with the chunky nineteenth-century font for the surname on the base, and again with the monogram ‘S’ on the cap below the statue. The latter has an organic quality.

The headstones are made of the same stone (I think it’s Westerly granite), but that’s about where any coherency ends. I suppose the small central extension in front of the lower molding below the scroll in some way might be taken to mirror the way the die of the monument stands out from the wings, but it’s a reach to think that intentional, I believe. In any event, the notion is that scrolls on the beveled face of the headstones bear the names of the deceased, and atop those have been laid flower offerings. The font is again different from any of the others in this ensemble.

Figure 7. Slifer monument. Detail: die and statue. Union Cemetery, Flourtown, PA. Photo: author.

As for the statue (figure 7), it is a classic ‘Good Shepherd’, although there is a little anecdotal story surrounding it, I think. The Christ figure has been reading—teaching, one supposes—from the book propped on his right leg. He’s just grabbed it to keep it from falling off, or has let it fall from his left hand. Seen from the side, the figure is somewhat hunched over, and this appears to be because he has just taken up the needy little lamb from the flock symbolized by the one sheep at his feet. So we catch the figure in mid-motion, in a nurturing gesture. The flock would stand for Christians, and I suppose the needy little lamb is the newly dead Slifer, taken up for just reward. So It’s not just conventional, as I said above, except that it is a bourgeois religious sentiment; but in fact the artist has taken the trouble to tell a little story. It’s clearly the product of a good company.

Two final observations. The monument, if reduced to its abstract geometry, is a stepped pyramid. And lastly, what of the six quite different fonts here? It’s hard to know when the various parts of the ensemble were put together, but the lack of control in the fonts suggests that the creation was piecemeal. Still, there are three different fonts on the die alone, and I don’t suppose they were carved at different times. I guess that Eliza, who went first, was the reason for the erection of the central monument with statue, and she was envisioned by Charles as the lamb, gone to Jesus. This also explains the lack of anagraphic details such as birth and death dates on the die: he couldn’t put his on yet, and so he left such details to the headstones.

I suppose the ‘S’ could have merited a “heraldic” font, its organic forms reminding us of a family tree. The name on the base is in big chunky nineteenth-century broadside font which shouts at us. The font on the die proper is, with its sort of organically swelling tips of the letters, maybe sort of closer to the Art Nouveau spirit we find elsewhere.

But why on earth not have the surname on the plot threshold in the same font as the one on the base of the monument? And why have initials ‘S’ on the sides of the threshold which don’t match the one on the die? And why not reuse any of the fonts on the headstones?

Guessing again, I suppose when Slifer died, his commemorators might have organized the plot (perhaps by Slifer’s wishes), but they just told the monument company to do something suitable, and no one was interested enough in quality control to insist that there be uniformity anywhere.

In any event, the Slifer monument with its plot is by far the most complex and grand in this little cemetery, and it just goes to show you that even in small, not too well-off gilded age communities we see posturings among the better-off citizens.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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