The Art of the Cemetery: Urn

An urn is a vessel with a typically narrowed neck above a rounded body and a footed pedestal.   A proud symbol of elegant beauty that holds our earthly remains, the urn is a symbol of death.  It is believed by many cultures that the body is turned into dust as the spirit floats away towards the next world.  When seen draped, an empty urn symbolizes the final partition that separates the living from the dead.

The urn is one of the most common examples of 19th century funerary art seen in the cemetery today.  No study of Victorian monument symbolism is complete without first examining urns and shrouds.  One of huge industrial and technological change, this period gets its name from from the reign of Queen Victoria of England, who ruled from 1837 to 1901.  In Victorian times, putting an urn on top of one’s gravestone was actually a reference to Ancient Greek and Roman cultures.  As far back as 1,000 BC, Ancient Greeks had adopted cremation as a measure to deal with their dead.  It is likely that this practice was introduced for military reasons as a way of ensuring soldiers killed abroad could be returned home (bodies were cremated and their ashes were returned home to be placed in an urn).  Athenians, in particular, normally cremated their dead and placed their ashes in an urn.

Victorians used the symbolism of an urn and shroud to show that they kept abreast of the classics-extremely popular at the time-letting the world know they were cultured and knowledgeable.  Shrouds laying over top the urn represented the thin “veil” between the living world and the dead.  Beyond a cloak separating earth and heaven, drapery can also be a motif that represents a shroud of death and sorrow.  Found in nearly every American cemetery, the urn was an almost ubiquitous element of 19th century funerary art.  The irony of the draped urn as a funerary symbol is that very few people were cremated during the Victorian era when the motif was at the height of its popularity.

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.