On Elizabeth’s grave in Brooklyn, there is no last name, no dates demarcating the beginning or end of her life, no epitaph. The tombstone, now over a century old, features just one carved scene, now covered with so many lichens and layers of grime that it’s hard to tell it was once sparkling, white marble. An angel with broad wings is leading a woman into the sky, and is glancing back, perhaps to be sure she is following. The woman’s arms are crossed either in faith or resignation; whatever expression was sculpted on her face is now worn off by time. The flowing drapery around their bodies suggests they are in rapid ascent, soaring above a wisp of clouds, to some great beyond we cannot see.
In the cemetery closest to me — Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery — there are thousands of monuments, dating back to 1838 when the burial ground opened on a glacial ridge overlooking the New York Harbor. Its labyrinthine paths were designed to send visitors on a meditative experience of mourning, guided by the surrounding tombs and their stone language of symbols. Inverted torches announce that a soul is still burning in Heaven even while life’s flame has gone out; evergreen foliage represents eternity; butterflies symbolize rebirth. But perhaps only rivaled in number by crosses are the angels, from a colossal sword-wielding Michael perched on a granite mausoleum, to the smaller seraphs on the low marble headstones.
I frequently walk through Green-Wood, finding the verdant place a contemplative escape from New York City’s noise and — living, at least — people. Among the imposing mausoleums and towering obelisks which seem to desperately shout — “Remember me!” — I am drawn to the quieter expressions of grief, in particular, these guiding angels. On one monument a woman floats into the sky with two winged immortals while her husband mourns at her grave. On another, an angel looms up from a storm of clouds before a kneeling young child, while on still another, a baby raises its tiny arm heavenward along with the angel who cradles it. Two of these winged immortals share a prone body between their arms, as if this person is too weak from dying to make their own journey to the afterlife.
Often the 19th-century marble tombs are so deteriorated from years in the urban air, their porous stone eroding into a granular texture descriptively known as “sugaring,” that I cannot make out the names. Yet because of the sculpted angels, it’s possible to discern that most are for women and children who died in the complications of childbearing or childbirth. On a weathered tombstone, a woman kneels in prayer as an angel takes her child away; not far off, an angel reaches out an arm to a mother and her infant, gesturing to the sky as she pulls them from their shared deathbed.
Even as these stones romanticize their death, the mortality and harrowing pain of Victorian women haunts these scenes. Without access to safe abortions or birth control, without proper medical care, sometimes without clean water to drink, every pregnancy was a risk, but one that women were expected to take on as their duty. The losses, too, were to be expected, and a whole iconography developed for 19th-century children’s tombstones, including sleeping lambs, doves, and rosebuds with their stems snapped. I sometimes remember these graves when women’s health rights are under attack, and how these women didn’t have a choice, and died from it. Carving memorials in pristine white washed away the blood and unpleasantness of their deaths, and presented a fantasy of its reward.
In colonial American cemeteries, such as Trinity Churchyard and Saint Paul’s Churchyard in Lower Manhattan, foreboding skulls, skeletons gleefully gnawing on bones, and flying souls echoed one message: repent before your own mortal end and final judgement. In the 19th century, there was a softening attitude towards death. With the brutal toll of the Civil War, the rise of the funeral industry, and the invention of photography that could keep the dead visually present, mourning became more personal. The Spiritualism movement, which emerged in upstate New York when in 1848 sisters Kate and Margaret Fox supposedly made contact with an invisible presence rapping in their home, spread a fervent belief that the spirits were all around, just waiting for us to reach out. Cemeteries, in turn, became more about having spaces for a connection beyond death, to prepare for a believed future reunion in paradise.
Unlike the draped urns, inverted torches, and symbolic flowers repeatedly carved into the soft marble of 19th-century tombs, these angel guides are individualized to show the identity of the person being mourned, representing their physical presence in the stone. There was a popular exception, however, replicated over and over, that also says a lot about how ideas of sleep and death got blurred in the Victorian age. Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen created the neoclassical medallions “Morning” and “Night” between 1815 and 1816, depicting daybreak like a joyous child riding on the back of an angel, and evening as an angel carrying two slumbering infants in her arms. The imagery of this nocturnal vision was inspired by the 2nd century Greek traveller Pausanias’s observations of the Chest of Kypselos at Olympia:
There is a figure of a woman holding on her right arm a white child asleep, and on her left she has a black child like one who is asleep. Each has his feet turned different ways. The inscriptions declare, as one could infer without inscriptions, that the figures are Death and Sleep, with Night the nurse of both.
This ancient description recalls that before they were transformed into a 19th-century cameo, the figures had symbolic color to them — one of the babies being Death, and one Sleep — and that, although the black and white hues were likely not signifying race, this mourning image and the tombs were predominately for white people. Even in death, where you were buried and how your tomb was marked was a privilege. Also in this 2nd-century scene, the woman was not an angel but a goddess — Nyx, night personified. In Thorvaldsen’s version, an owl flies to her right, looking out at the viewer as if guarding the children’s sleep from intrusion. Although he intended the medallions to be a pair, “Night” was the most fashionable, duplicated in plaster for home decoration, on mourning jewelry, and on tombs. One at Green-Wood is on a simple granite grave for twin daughters — Christine and Aretta — born in 1880. They both died in 1882, one on January 1, the second on the 3rd, and Thorvaldsen’s art here is no longer allegorical, it is a personal reflection of these losses.
I’ve gotten good at spotting these graves amid the dense rows of tombs, seeking them out as they actually express something about loss that’s usually absent from the ways we deal with death. We wonder where that person is now, if they are being cared for, if they’re anywhere at all. Nevertheless, even in acknowledging that gaping void left by death, they treat it like a beautiful dream. Angels still manifest in our funerary practices — a battalion of them flanked the casket in which my grandmother was interred last summer, as if these tiny cherubs could lift the metallic weight of the coffin from the earth like a huge ship sailing into the unknown — but rarely do our tombstones portray the departure of the deceased from our lives.
These Victorian angels are deteriorating, and I wonder how much longer some of them will be visible. Maybe that’s why I feel compelled to photograph them. For children who didn’t live into adulthood, or women whose only permitted roles were as a wife and mother, these are often the last tangible record of them, and as they fade, so too do their memories into a final absence.