The Art of the Cemetery: Obelisk

The word “obelisk” derives from the Greek word “obeliskos,” which means a spit or a pointed object for roasting.  A celebratory monument originating from Ancient Egypt, obelisks are a rectangular pillar with a tapered top forming a pyramidion (a miniature pyramid) set on a base.  By definition, an obelisk is an upright 4-sided monolithic pillar that terminates in a pyramid.  Obelisks borrow heavily from Egyptian, Greek and Roman architectural styles.

For Ancient Egyptians, the obelisk was a reverential monument.  The obelisk served to commemorate the dead, represent kings, and honor gods.  The obelisk was thought to be a representation of Ra, the Ancient Egyptian sun god because it followed the movement of the sun’s journey. Ra (the Sun) would appear in the morning, move across the sky, and disappear again in the darkness at dusk.  Ancient Egyptians typically embellished all four sides of the obelisk’s shaft with hieroglyphs (a form of writing in which pictures or symbols are used to represent objects, concepts, or sounds) that included religious dedications, principally for the sun god Ra, as well as tributes to rulers.

Obelisks became a popular gravestone motif in 19th-century.  This is directly attributable to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, an Ancient Egyptian stone bearing inscriptions in several languages and scripts, in 1801 and the British occupation of Egypt.  Some called this fascination with the imagery and ideas of Ancient Egypt “Egyptomania.”  Egyptian motifs suggested permanence and stability, communicating an ancient wisdom that would remain standing through the ages.

Tall, slender, and visually striking, obelisks often dominate the sculptural landscape of cemeteries cemeteries.  A symbol quite popular during the 1880s through the 1930s, obelisks were considered to be tasteful as they were associated with ancient greatness and patriotism.  In cemeteries, obelisks symbolize greatness, conveying the essence of a powerful ruler.  Obelisks represented the wealth and prestige of the departed.  Often used by non-conformist Christians in the Victorian period, obelisks were seen as pointing toward heaven and God.  In the same vein, obelisks communicated rebirth, and the connection between this world and the next.

Woodlawn is an open-air art gallery and living history museum that attracts 100,000 visitors annually. Our memorials represent the largest and finest collection of funerary art in the country. Visit our cemetery and explore 400 acres of art, architecture, and history.

Woodlawn continues to be a non-sectarian cemetery without a specific religious affiliation.