James Durkin died in 1908 and his wife Catherine erected over his grave (which would one day become their common one) an attractive stele with a classical grieving figure (figure 1). This is in St. Catherine’s Cemetery in Moscow, Pennsylvania.
The stone has been toppled from its base and replaced, but not without having suffered damage at its top. How much damage is hard to say, because the background of the relief has been worked with a broad chisel to give the impressions of striations as in rock strata and the vertical edges of the stele (not including the base) are deliberately cut in a rustic style. It’s hard to tell where deliberate irregularities in the stele end and accidental breaks begin—I’ll return to this below.
On a stony ground line, a young female figure is posed as though genuflecting on her right knee. A tall flowering lily stalk rises right in front of her. A chiton, cinched at the waist, has fallen off the figure’s right shoulder; the drapery covers the right foot behind the figure, but the left foot is partly exposed. The bare back and right arm and shoulder are turned to our view. The head has a face with a typical Greek goddess profile, and a simplified Greek goddess hairdo pulled back into a bun.
The figure is turned away from us because it is clasping what appears to be a column on a wide base. We are to understand that the left arm circles around behind the column, and the right clasps the column visibly.
Because the stone is broken (the longer diagonal edge atop exhibits a fairly fresh break), and because the stone deliberately imitates irregular rusticated forms I can’t tell if the stone was originally more or less squared off on top, or whether it (for example) rose to a peak in the center top. If the slanted line on the right top is a break it’s a much older one than the other and has the same patination as the rest of the surfaces. The back is plain.
Interpretation seems fairly clear: Catherine the widow is represented by the female figure which resembles in its classicism Grief figures across the country. The column was depicted as broken from the start, I think, and represents James, or rather, the broken column represents his life cut short.
I’m genuinely surprised to find (neo)classical Greek symbolism in a Roman Catholic cemetery. It’s not that you don’t occasionally see it, but there is almost always such a flight from all but trite and true Catholic iconography that I’ve formed a working hypothesis that some or most RC cemeteries once had a policy that limited commemorators’ choices to doctrinally approved images. Whimsy is exceedingly rare in older sections of RC cemeteries (but see figure 3, from Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Scranton), whereas I’ve seen as many as 6 Holy Family groups cheek-by-jowl in them and infinitely many faces of Jesus or statues of Mary.
I do not complain of funerary images of Jesus and Mary; I merely note the endless repetition of them and related or analogous images that suggests an impoverished iconographic pool. Mrs. Durkin, bless, her, escaped the pressure, if any, to conform. Nowadays anything goes: see here, for example, for some quite distinctive mausolea at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C.