I thought the jumble of three tombstones below evoked a romantic spirit of decay (figure 1). I captured the image from a distance in a quick round of Rosemont Cemetery in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.
It was only after taking the shot that I realized that the image on the middle stone is not a floral but the tops of two human figures (figure 2).
The top two stones have, of course, been broken off at near ground level and then laid atop the stone at the rear. I tried to do due diligence and pull the front tombstone away from the middle so as to see the rest of the image, but these stones have been together long enough that earth and plants have rendered them immovable. I could not read the stones’ text in situ, nor can I now in my photograph, so that I can’t give a date beyond second half of the nineteenth century.
What of the two human figures? (figures 2, 3) The postures seem to me to indicate they are standing. They are horizontally centered in the frame of the relief and, I suspect, in the vertical dimension, too. The first faint line of text (MA . . .), whose position is likely dictated by the bottom of the relief frame seems to indicate that the frame is long enough to accommodate standing figures.
Looking more closely at the figures, the one on our left seems to be female with long flowing hair parted on her right. The figure’s head is turned to the left to look at the other figure. The lines of the figure’s torso lead upward toward the left side of the relief (recall I mean proper left and right when describing human figures, left and right from our point of view when describing all other elements of a stone).
See, for example, the line marking where the right arm meets the upper torso, and the rising line of the left side of the torso below the armpit. I think the figure is nude, though it’s not easy to tell thanks to the weathering of the stone. The female figure’s left arm trails, and is caught between the right arm and torso of the other figure.
We see more of the other torso, which also appears to be nude but in this case male. Where the lines of the female torso seem to me to indicate that it is moving evasively to the left, the male figure is in a more stable posture.
The heads of both figures are quite worn (figure 3); one can see that the marble is beginning to crumble away, and the lichen hides some features even where it has not yet eaten them away. Nevertheless I see the male figure’s head as a skull with large darker orbits in my image and a long toothy grin in that skull-y way, exaggerated so that it runs up toward the left ear. See how, unlike the hair on the female head which flows back in curling locks, the male’s hair extends from the head at a steady angle almost as though it were the outline of a veil: I take it to be wispy corpse hair.
If I’ve correctly seen and described the figures, I think we have a version of the ‘death and the maiden’ topos. Death, in the form of a dead man portrayed with distinguishing characteristics such as having a skull for a face, or bits of skin beginning to crack open and peel away, or even with traditional attributes of cloak and scythe, seeks to ravish a young woman, who symbolizes youth and life. It’s a variation of the memento mori idea which symbolizes the event of death as a form of sexual assault. The female figure usually seeks to get away, as she does here, or may be unaware of the silent approach of death behind her (see figure 4); death reaches out to grab and possess her. In our image (figure 3), I suspect that Death’s right hand grasps the maiden’s right arm behind her body as we look at her. This can’t be seen so I can’t say it for sure, of course.
The heads of the two figures are both posed in stylized ways; they look obliquely out of the plane of the relief but the convention is that they are looking at one another.
The only other monument of this type I’ve ever seen is the 1862 Crocker monument in Forest Spring Cemetery in Binghamton, New York. I wrote about it here, but briefly, the Binghamton Death has been given the attributes of father time.