Let’s Get Stoned

The world of funerary decoration ranges from the cultural to the personal, essentially following the evolution of society’s view of the individual life. Eighteenth century gravestones reveal very little about the individual life of the dead person commemorated by the stone over their body. The Romantic movement is acknowledged to have begun in 1798 with the publication of Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

Willow and urn at Pioneer Cemetery

It takes a while for cultural trends to trickle down to the “common man,” the kind of person whose grave you encounter in a country burial ground. The Romantic influence was certainly nowhere in evidence in the Pioneer Cemetery on Gorge Road in Ulysses, New York. The graveyard has the appearance of a place that has been abandoned for a long, long time and then recently rediscovered, recently reaffirmed.

In the Pioneer Cemetery the dominant motif is the weeping willow.

”The first half of the 19th century was quite interested in the Greeks and Romans because they were republics and we were a new democracy. There was a great interest in Greek architecture during that time as well, up till around middle of that century. So naturally, gravestones reflected this. The urn and willow, as you probably know, was very popular. The urn was used by Greeks to keep the ashes of the cremated, but why the willow? Well, it was a symbol of the Underworld goddesses, mostly notably Persephone. Also, Orpheus, when he went to the Underworld, brought along a willow branch. This apparently helped him get his gift of speech because, as you might know, Orpheus was a famous poet.” Graveaddiction.com

Central New York was settled by veterans of the Revolutionary War after 1792. Which is to say, they started dying in the early 19th century. Their gravestones routinely incorporate the traditional weeping willow imagery. In the Pioneer Cemetery it is quite obvious that the same stone carver made each of the willow engravings in the stone; they are almost exactly the same.

“The cypress was long considered as the appropriate ornament of the cemetery; but its gloomy shade among the tombs, and its thick, heavy foliage of the darkest green, inspire only depressing thoughts, and present death under its most appalling image, whilst the weeping willow, on the contrary, rather conveys a picture of the grief felt for the loss of the departed than of the darkness of the grave. Its light and elegant foliage flows like the disheveled hair and graceful drapery of a sculptured mourner over a sepulchral urn, and conveys those soothing, though melancholy reflections that made the poet write, ‘Tis better to have lov’d and lost, Than never to have lov’d at all.’” 20/20 Site

Trilliums on the grave of Dr. Biggs (d. 1923)

As the Romantic movement reached downward from the likes of the poets and into the middle class, personal botanical preferences began to appear on gravestones.  By the early 20th century even physicians were incorporating their favorite plants into their tombstones. Hermann Michael Biggs was born in Trumansburg, New York in 1859—the Victorian Era—and passed away in 1923, the early Modern period.

Biggs attended Cornell University in the 1870s, pursuing a degree in medicine, and he studied abroad in France with Pasteur and in Germany with Koch, absorbing the then new germ theory. Biggs brought the germ theory back to the U.S. and became a prominent public health official, first as general medical officer for the city of New York and later as the commissioner of health for the state. He introduced the idea of quarantine to American public heath, for which he is both villainized (for its breach of civil rights) and lionized (for its recognition of the communicable nature of disease).

Close-up of trillium on Biggs gravestone

He had a summer retreat in the Adirondacks that he called “Trillium,” and when he died and was buried in Grove Cemetery in Trumansburg, his tombstone was adorned with carved trillium flowers. Unlike the weeping willow, which has a general cultural connotation of grief, the trillium was a purely personal attachment of Hermann Biggs. This is a clear evocation of the Modernist sensibility that was prevalent in the last twenty-five years of his life. Modernism favored individual expression over faithful evocation of cultural convention. His wife was buried beside him and her tombstone is also adorned with carved trillium.

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