Field Guide

Draped Urn

The draped cinerary* urn is probably the most common nineteenth century funerary** symbol. Some nineteenth century cemeteries appear to be a sea of urns. The drape can be seen as either a reverential accessory or as a symbol of the veil between Earth and the Heavens. The urn is to ashes as the sarcophagus is to the body, which makes the urn a very curious nineteenth century funerary device, since cremation was seldom practiced. Nowadays the word ashes has been replaced by cremated remains (abbreviated to cremains by the death-care industry). But in the nineteenth century, urns seldom contained ashes. Rather, they were used as decorative devices, perched on top of columns, sarcophagi, and mausoleums, carved into tombstones, doors, and walls. The urn and the willow tree were two of the first funerary motifs to replace death's heads and soul effigies when funerary symbolism started to take on a softer air after the Revolutionary war.

Word entomologists tell us that the phrase 'gone to pot' may have had its origin as a reference to a cinerary urn.

*Cinerary means containing or used for ashes of the cremated dead.
**Funerary means of or pertaining to a funeral or burial.

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.

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