Written in Stone
A CultureMap®
by James Waller
Published on 9/11/13

In death, we are not all equal. Some of us take our final rest in lavish tombs, while others end up in unmarked graves. But almost everyone wants to be remembered and to memorialize those we have lost. That’s why the sculptors and architects who create funerary art and memorials—everyone from celebrated artist Maya Lin to the fictional paterfamilias in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel—belong to one of humanity’s most enduring professions.

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Look Homeward, Angel  (Thomas Wolfe | novel | 1929)
to  Memorial  (Bruce Wagner | novel | 2006)

Legendary editor Maxwell Perkins didn’t like the title Thomas Wolfe chose for his debut novel: O Lost. So he made Wolfe change it—and famously chopped more than 60,000 words from the young writer’s gargantuan manuscript. But Wolfe’s original title, from a phrase that recurs throughout the book, seems more apt than Look Homeward, Angel, since the novel is a yowling, tempestuous testament of loss. Even more than most autobiographical fiction, Look Homeward, Angel functions as a personal memorial, to lost loved ones, a lost childhood and a lost world, the small-town South of the early 20th century.

From his childhood years Wolfe understood the human instinct to memorialize: His father, W.O. Wolfe—called W.O. Gant in the novel—was a maker of tombstones. Gant discovers his calling when, as a boy, he sees an angel in a stonecutter’s shop and is suddenly inspired “to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone.” In Bruce Wagner’s novel Memorial, architect Joan Herlihy’s motive for designing a memorial is a bit more avaricious, though no less existential. She hungers for the international acclaim she believes the commission will bring.

Memorial  (Bruce Wagner | novel | 2006)
to  Maya Lin  (b. 1959 | American architect, designer)

An innovative memorial can earn its designer lasting renown. After all, history still remembers the name of Imhotep—the architect who nearly 5,000 years ago engineered the step pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara, Egypt. The notice craved by Joan Herlihy, one of four protagonists in Bruce Wagner’s trenchant, underappreciated novel Memorial, is monumental if not quite so eternal: She hopes her proposed memorial for two American victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami will earn her laudatory write-ups in the architectural press and give her career a much-needed lift. It may even elevate her into the ranks of the prize-winning, household-name “starchitects” whom Joan, a vain and resentful creature, both envies and detests. Her sinking feeling that she may not have the talent to achieve her desire doesn’t curb her ambition; to improve her chances, she sleeps with the billionaire commissioning the project.

The notion that designing a memorial can, even in modern times, propel an enterprising architect to worldwide fame recalls Maya Lin, who as a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate won the 1981 competition to design Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial—beating out more than 1,400 other entries and vaulting Lin into the starchitectural firmament.

Maya Lin  (b. 1959 | American architect, designer)
to  War Memorials

The major element in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin’s Wall is one of the most cherished monuments commemorating an American war. The V-shaped, polished black granite wall is sunk partly below grade and inscribed with names of the more than 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam. The understated design initially had its critics. But Vietnam vets and the families of those killed in the conflict appreciated its evocative mirrored surface, stark dignity and decided lack of triumphalism—a modesty appropriate to mark a war the U.S. had, in many people’s opinion, lost. So popular did the Memorial Wall become that nonprofit groups created several small-scale traveling replicas to carry its somber testimony to towns across the country.

War memorials as well as those dedicated to civilian dead—both famous (Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.) and obscure (John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller)—are thick on the ground in the parkland around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, at the western end of Washington’s National Mall. Among the newest is the National World War II Memorial (dedicated in 2004), a grandiose, overwrought concatenation of pillars around a fountain pool, which suffers by contrast with the mournful simplicity of Lin’s design.

War Memorials
to  National 9/11 Memorial

War monuments commemorating the lives of political leaders and other noteworthy folk have a venerable history, traceable to the pyramids, mausoleums and triumphal columns and arches of antiquity. Ordinary people have long been memorialized by headstones and other cemetery art and architecture, but our era has produced a new type of public memorial—one dedicated to those who lost their lives not through acts of heroism or self-sacrifice but as victims of mass murder. Numerous Holocaust memorials and museums around the world—for example, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—convey the “Never forget” message to later generations. Memorials to those killed in acts of terrorism, including the Oklahoma City National Memorial (dedicated in 2000) and New York City’s National September 11 Memorial (dedicated in 2011), express collective horror and sorrow over the unspeakable evils wrought by extremist violence. Situated not in cemeteries or on battlefields but at the urban sites where the attacks took place, these memorials alter the meaning of hallowed ground. At both the Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center memorials, a “survivor tree” that somehow withstood the destruction stands as a living symbol of resilience and hope.

Maya Lin  (b. 1959 | American architect, designer)
to  Equestrian Statues

Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was controversial at first, in part because it speaks an architectural language different from that of most monuments. It isn’t a column (like the Prison Ships Martyrs’ Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park), an obelisk (the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts) or a sarcophagus (the Tomb of the Unknowns in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery). Even more upsetting to its detractors, the memorial didn’t originally include any sculpture. Two statues—The Three Soldiers and the figural grouping of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial—were later added to the site, the first a sop to outraged traditionalists.

That is not to say the conventional forms lack merit. They would simply have been out of place—as out of place, one may hazard, as an equestrian statue in a memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers of a modern war. The United States has some exceptional equestrian statues and monuments incorporating equestrian elements, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s turn-of-the-century gilded bronze monument to General William Sherman in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza and the same master sculptor’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston. But as magnificent as these are, their vocabulary belongs to another time.

War Memorials
to  Funerary Art

Funerary art reached its apogee in ancient Egypt. Although not all Egyptian art and architecture exalts the cult of death and the afterlife, a lot of it does: from tomb wall frescoes to mummy cases, from Book of the Dead papyrus scrolls to pyramids. Builders of later tombs—from the Pyramid of Cestius (18–12 B.C.) in Rome to Lenin’s Mausoleum (1924) in Moscow—have looked to early Egyptian culture for inspiration. So did the designers of the Confederate Pyramid (1869) in Richmond, Virginia, and an obelisk at Ad Halom, Israel, dedicated to Egyptian soldiers who fell in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. There’s an unwitting irony, however, in using these architectural forms to memorialize common soldiers’ sacrifice. Ancient Egyptian funerary art was produced for royalty and, to a lesser extent, the upper classes. Even the era’s battle art downplays or ignores the role of warriors other than the pharaoh, who is often depicted as a chariot-borne archer dispatching his enemies more or less singlehandedly. And for a very long stretch of history afterward—until the 19th century, really—war monuments celebrated the victories of kings and generals, not the numberless dead who aided their bellicose causes.

Funerary Art
to  Equestrian Statues

A visit today to pre-20th-century cemeteries such as Paris’s Père Lachaise, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery and New Orleans’s necropolises reveals that funerary art is highly conventionalized. Constrained by relatively few styles and motifs, the iconography of remembrance includes family tombs that borrow from mausoleums of antiquity; cenotaphs and obelisks that likewise hearken back to ancient models; crosses, urns and braziers; sorrowful or prayerful angels; and hooded female figures bent by bereavement. Rare is the grave that conveys, through decoration or inscription, anything particular about the individual buried there.

This is equally true of equestrian statues, figural memorials of uniformed military leaders on horseback. No matter how true its likeness, an equestrian statue isn’t meant to convey details of the leader’s character, only the power and glory common to the class. But funerary art inspires visitors to make meaning—even when it’s not there. For example, many people believe equestrian statues adhere to a standardized “hoof code” in which a rearing horse signifies the rider’s death in battle; one hoof raised, that he was wounded in combat or died later of wounds sustained; all hooves planted on the plinth, that he died of other causes. Nonetheless, no such code exists.

Funerary Art
to  Look Homeward, Angel  (Thomas Wolfe | novel | 1929)

Reading Thomas Wolfe’s vast novel Look Homeward, Angel can be a long slog (even with editor Maxwell Perkins’s many excisions). But it pays off big-time in the final chapter, in which [spoiler alert] the protagonist, Eugene Gant, encounters a phantom of his beloved dead brother Ben in front of their father’s shuttered stonecutting shop in the fictional town of Altamont (the stand-in for Wolfe’s real-world birthplace of Asheville, North Carolina). As Eugene and the spookily resurrected Ben talk for the first time in years, another supernatural event occurs. The carved angels in their father’s shop come to life: The “angels were walking to and fro like huge wound dolls of stone. The long cold pleats of their raiment rang with brittle clangor; their full decent breasts wagged in stony rhythms, and through the moonlight, with clashing wings the marble cherubim flew round and round.” Wolfe’s insightful passage conveys the intention of funerary art, from ancient Egypt to modern times: not just to honor the dead but to deny death its dominion—or, at the very least, to raise an objection.