There is nothing good about the death of an infant or a child. It wrenches the heart even of a spectator. To confront the demographic realities humans have historically faced (and though things are better, still do) is healthy, and it reminds me, at any rate, that my own troubles are not so great after all. Here, a conspicuous pair of improbable monuments offers an unhappy opportunity to briefly survey American infant and child funerary commemoration. My survey is necessarily selective.

Figure 1. Paulsen monument. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA. Photo: author.

Funerary images of sleeping children are common: every taphophile has seen them. They run the gamut from the grand to the humble.

Sometimes grieving parents throw their all into commemoration, trying to posture socially in a sort of Ozymandian way: see what I take to be an example here and perhaps to a lesser extent here.

At other times sentimentality comes to the forefront, as here. We sometimes find the sentimentality echoed in literature, as with Hemingway’s shortest (sad) short story: “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.” Others find solace in poetry running from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Religion, and ascribing child death to God’s unfathomable plan, is a refuge for still others. No few parents buried children in metaphorical cradles, tending flowers planted within a border and communing with their dead. Some took solace in thinking of an eventual reunion in the après-vie.

Nor is such commemoration restricted to infants or young children.

But the strangest conceit imaginable, the oddest commemorative choice I can think of, is the ‘baby on the half shell‘, an American monument type of the later nineteenth century. In it, an infant lies on its side, notionally asleep in a giant open scallop shell. The shell, rising up over the sleeping infant, seems to shelter it from the elements. One can also point to classical and classically derived portraits which used a scallop shell as a frame. Still, to have them served up like an oyster to be downed at table is odd. To be sure, the metaphor is surely that the child was an invaluable pearl that has now been lost; but the metaphor is so clunky and so undermined by other shell images that it makes me, at any rate, scratch my head that it became widely popular.

Figure 2. Paulsen monument. Detail: shell monuments. Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA. Photo: author.

The Paulsens lost two anonymous children in 1871 and 1873. Commemorated only as ‘Our Babies’, their two monuments (figures 1, 2), sitting on a common base, in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, are of the baby on the half shell type with infant portraits nearly identical except for the hairstyles. One imagines that they were commissioned and erected after the second child had died, for they seem to come from the same cutter’s hand, and the geometry of the entire monument presupposes two shell monuments.

The monument type is that of a cradle grave, common in Bonaventure. The monument, built here of marble border pieces, encloses a patch of ground where, it was envisioned, the grieving could commune with the deceased while cultivating flowers on the plot. The two shell monuments rise at the head of the cradle.

The soil in Bonaventure is laden with seashells on an earlier geologic epoch. It is just possible that this played a part in the Paulsens’ choice of shell monuments.

The great mass of monuments and tombstones can be reduced to a few basic shapes and types. Although each one is one-off, they are, in fact mass produced, especially now that computers are the ‘artists’. But to see two nearly identical half-shell monuments in the same family monument surely drives home how standardized the grief (and monument-producing industry) was, even in the early 1870s.

This type of monuments has been carefully studied: see this article.

Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor Z 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens.

Figure 1. 43 mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/13 s.
Figure 2. 43 mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/13 s.

Edited in Apple photos.

The author acknowledges and thanks Christina Clark, who spotted the monument under discussion here.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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