Symbol of the Month – The Boat

The first Symbol of the Month of 2020 – a little later than I planned but more to come….

Close-up of boat, Caig monument Brompton Cemetery
Side view of boat

There are many sailing vessels in cemeteries. Ships, boats and the occasional yacht, becalmed on headstones or monuments forever sailing on a marble or granite sea.  Often they reveal the incumbent’s former occupation as on this fine example on the grave of Captain Edward Parry Nisbet in Brompton Cemetery.  Note the cross formed by the mast which is one of the central symbols of Christianity. There’s also the magnificent and exuberant monument to Captain Wimble  and his indomitable wife on the appropriately named Ship Path in West Norwood Cemetery.

But this little boat tied up and apparently moored at the base of a large cross is symbolic of a journey that has reached its final destination.

Side Side view of boatview of boat showing detail as it’s been carved to resemble a wooden boat.

The monument is located within Brompton Cemetery and is a representation of the journey of life.  This is a small sculpture of a rowing boat that has been carved to resemble a wooden one and there are seats inside but no oars. It could be interpreted as coming to the end of your life or journey and entering another life of eternity symbolised by the cross.  In other words, the crossing to the ‘other world’ as Douglas Keister calls it.   Also as www.stoneletters says:

‘…it’s a symbol of our last journey, it embodies the voyage of life, of coming full circle and taking us back to the waters of our beginning.’

However a boat can also be seen as an emblem of safety and refuge as it carries us over life’s often choppy seas and takes us home.  In this context, another boat that springs to mind is Noah’s Ark.  It protected and saved all that were on it and was a metaphor for the church as it weathered the storm against all odds.  However, Keister also suggests that the shape of a boat can resemble that of a cradle or a womb which would again emphasise shelter and protection. It holds us secure above the chaos of life.

Boats and death are a central theme in many other religions and cultures in that they carry the souls of the dead to eternity.  For example, King Arthur was transported by boat on death and, most famously, the Vikings people also used funerary boats. This was granted to important people of the tribe as they and their possessions would be sent out across the water in one after it had been set ablaze.  A symbolic mimicking of the soul’s journey to Valhalla.  Also in Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who took the souls of the dead by boat into the Underworld by crossing the River of Woe, Acheron.

But boats and death also feature in literature, especially poetry and there is the famous quotation by F Scott Fitzgerald:

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ 

‘Crossing the Bar’ by  Alfred Lord Tennyson also features a sea voyage which will end in death,

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

There is also The Ship of Death by D H Lawrence amongst others.

I said earlier that a boat or ship is an important Christian symbol due to the mast forming a cross. Also, the Latin for ‘nave’ ,the central aisle of a church,  means ‘ship’ and there are several Biblical references to boats and ships.  After all, Christ told his disciples to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.

But let’s not forget that a boat or ship can also indicate a love of sailing and freedom.

The epitaph beneath the boat – some of the letters are missing .
©Carole Tyrrell

Some of the letters on the epitaph beneath the boat and cross have worn away so I can only assume tha the name commemorated is Walter Ward M Cais but it seems incomplete. He died young at only 43 and his widow, Martha, married again and lived well into the 20th century. It must have been a message of comfort that Walter’s small boat was moored safely for eternity.

Full view of the boat and cross, Caig monument, Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

 

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References:

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

https://stoneletters.com/blog/headstone-symbols-the-boat

https://allaboutheaven.org/symbols/boat/123

http://www.historyofpainters.com/boat_symbolism.htm

http://imagesinthemind.blogspot.com/2008/08/boat-symbol.html

 

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Symbol of the Month – The Mourning Woman

 

A fine example from Kensal Green Cemetery on the Isabella Shaw memorial.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

This month’s symbol is the Mourning Woman who is derived from Classicism and its association with ancient Greece and Rome.  I would hesitate before describing their presence in Victorian cemeteries and churchyards as a monstrous regiment but they have mostly been on duty for over a hundred years.  They patiently watch over and grieve for the departed.  An eternal mourner, often with a veil covering her head and swathed in flowing robes, she keeps vigil.

The Mourning Woman can be a free standing statue on top of a monument or plinth looking sorrowfully down on the viewer.  She can also be in the form of a 3D relief weeping over an urn containing the beloved’s ashes as in these examples:

 

At West Norwood cemetery there is this example of one resting on a lifesize cross (I hate to say it but whenever I see her I’m always reminded of the George Formby song ‘I’m Leaning on a lamp post…etc.).

A full view of the mourning woman as she rests on a cross on the Herbert Warren memorial, West Norwood Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Classicism held sway when London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created. The anti-Catholic movement from the Georgian era was still a major influence with the cry ‘No Popery!’ loudly shouted.   So no crosses, no statues of Jesus or any angels were permitted.  Instead the clear cool lines of the ancient world were used as well as some of their traditions.

Mourning women were one of these as women played an integral part in the funerary ritual in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.   In the latter they were paid professional mourners as the more mourners there were at a funeral the more wealthy and prestigious the departed had been in life.  In the funeral procession which took place prior to the cremation the professional mourning women, who were not part of the deceased’s family, would loudly wail, rip out their hair and also scratch their faces in mourning according to contemporary records.  It was felt that women could more easily express emotions as it was unacceptable for a man to weep in public.

There are several Biblical references to the mourning women.  They are mentioned in Amos 5:16, Chronicles 35:25 and also in Jeremiah 9:17 as below

Thus saith the LORD of hosts,

Consider ye, and call for the mourning women,

that they may come;

and send for cunning women, that they may come:
King James Bible

 

The reference to ‘cunning’ women means ‘skilled’ women.

They would often weep noisily and copiously spilling their tears into vessels known as tear catchers or lachrimosa.  At the recent excellent Museum of Docklands exhibition, The Roman Dead, there were some on display.  They were small glass vessels and were placed in tombs, presumably overflowing, after the funeral was complete. Again, if many tears were collected, it signified that the deceased was held in high esteem and those crying the most would receive a higher payment.

Incidentally the tear catchers became fashionable again in the 19th century with the Victorian cult of death.  But this time the bottles had special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate and when they did the mourning period would be over.  There is also a Biblical association with the practice of collecting tears in bottles in Psalms 56:8:

Thou tellest my wanderings:

put thou my tears into thy bottle:

are they not in thy book?

King James Bible

 

In ancient Greece it was again women who prepared the body and then laid it out ready for viewing on the second day.

Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites wasthe prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.

Wikipedia

 

Here is a 6th century depiction of ancient Greek professional mourning women in full flow:

Body lying in state attended by family members with the mournign women ritually tearing their hair, Terracotta plaque – late 6th century BC. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

 

So for centuries women have been associated with, and played a major part, in the funerary process which may have been one of the reasons for the Mourning Woman appearing in cemeteries.

I feel that these women could be seen as a forerunner of the winged angels that flew into cemeteries towards the end of the 19th century.  Both of them were guardians of the dead protecting them for eternity.

To end on, here is an lovely example that I unexpectedly discovered while on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the ‘secret’ graveyard behind St Nicholas’s church in Sevenoaks.  She stands, surrounded by back gardens, and is a particularly elegant version.  The memorial beneath her feet is dedicated to Elizabeth Dick and was erected by her sorrowing husband.

Sleep well for eternity Elizabeth and all those guarded by the mourning women.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

https://victorianmonsters.wordpress.com/victorian-funerary-practices/https://victorianmonsters.wordpress.com/victorian-funerary-practices/

https://www.ancient.eu/article/96/the-roman-funeral/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_funerary_practices

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Funus.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/understanding-grief/201802/professional-mourners-ancient-tradition

https://biblehub.com/jeremiah/9-17.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_mourning

http://www.lachrymatory.com/History.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_funeral_and_burial_practices

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Funus.html

 

 

 

 

Symbol of the Month – the square and compass

This example is from Brompton Cemetery and is dedicated to a woman.
©Carole Tyrrell

The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings.  The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God.  However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation.  But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade

The Freemason association is the most obvious and common.  They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people.  But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’

‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’

 They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’

They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons.  Wikipedia says ‘

‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct  as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866

 in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’

 There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.

But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:

something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’

They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form.  So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.

But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not.  There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.

You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:

I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.

 ©Text and photos unless otherwise stated Carole Tyrell

Further reading and references:

http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/10/victorian_memorial_symbols_feature.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_and_Compasses

https://symbolsproject.eu/explore/human/hobby-/-leisure-/-affiliation-/-membership/compass-and-carpenters-square.aspx

http://www.masonic-lodge-of-education.com/square-and-compasses.html

 

http://www.richardcassaro.com/square-compasses-unveiled

Long-winded but worth a look