Field Guide

Sarcophagus

In its simplest and most utilitarian form, the sarcophagus is a container for the body, but unlike a coffin or casket, it is designed to (more or less) last for eternity. It is rare to find a sarcophagus in a cemetery that actually contains a body, because most are ornamental, the body is usually buried in a vault beneath the sarcophagus. Whether the sarcophagus contains a body or not, it looks like it could contain a body.

One of the most popular styles of the sarcophagus is made out of bronze and looks like a heavily decorated claw-foot bathtub with a cover. This particular style of sarcophagus is easy to spot in cemeteries, since over the years the bronze has developed a streaky green-and-black patina that contrasts with the granite and marble tombs in the rest of the cemetery. Just as mausoleum manufacturers have a few basic models for mausoleums, manufacturers of the bronze sarcophagus had a basic model that could be customized to suit the buyer's wishes. In addition to the occupant's name, all manner of symbols, including flora, fauna, and decorative flourishes, could be applied to the surface of the sarcophagus.

Most sarcophagi in cemeteries are made of stone, and stone carvers have adapted the sarcophagus as a ready canvas to showcase their talent. Indeed, aside from its need to look like it could house a body, the sarcophagus is really a piece of sculpture. Much of what is included in the broad description of sarcophagi has actually evolved into other forms, and sometimes it's hard to say where the line is between a sarcophagus and an ornamental tomb.

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. This book is a must for every cemetery enthusiast!!!