Cemeteries can be exquisite outdoor galleries of architecture and art, a point made a few years ago by the television series Dead Art in its introduction to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Over the past 160 years we’ve accumulated an eclectic array of art on our 90 acres. Following is a short introduction to some of the highlights, with a special emphasis on symbolism. The photo gallery at the bottom of the page shows examples of symbols and architectural styles.
To learn more about the art and architecture in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, take one of our guided tours. For a more extensive review of cemetery symbolism we recommend Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.
Cemeteries are rightly celebrated for their abundant symbolism, much of it concerned with physical mortality and spiritual eternity. When you explore Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, you will find common religious symbols, flowers, vocations and avocations …
- Anchor. Frequently a Christian symbol for hope and steadfastness, it bears an obvious resemblance to the cross.
- Angels. Spiritual messengers appear in most major religions, though most of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s angels appear to be associated with Christian beliefs. Cherubs—small, child-like angels—often indicate the grave of a child. Adult angels are often heavenly messengers in human form. Sometimes they represent specific virtues, sometimes they are used simply as a figure of mourning.
Crosses. Greek: primarily an Eastern Orthodox form, has arms of equal length. Celtic: A cross with a ring surrounding the intersection, often highly ornamented. Portate: a Latin cross deliberately oriented diagonally, a visual reminder of Christ carrying the cross. Cross and crown: a cross passing through a crown is a traditional Christian symbol appearing most frequently in Roman Catholic churches; also used by the modern Masonic order Knights Templar.
- Effigy. Image of a glorified soul, usually with a crown, winging its way heavenward. A colonial-era symbol found mostly in the churchyard of the adjacent Old Dutch Church, with a few instances in the extreme southern end of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The face isn’t intended to portray the deceased.
- IHS. These three letters, usually appearing on a cross, are derived from the first three letters of Jesus’ name as it appears in New Testament Greek texts: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (iota, eta, sigma, omikron, upsilon, sigma). In the Latin alphabet used in the English language, that is roughly IHSOYS. These three letters occasionally appear intertwined, where they unintentionally resemble a dollar sign.
- HSA-UWC symbol is a central disk emanating 12 rays, inside a square, inside a circle. The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity has training facilities nearby in Tarrytown.
- Lamp. Often a Christian symbol of wisdom and faithfulness.
- Menorah. In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery we find mostly the seven-branched candelabra described in Exodus, often used on the headstones of women.
- Star of David. One of the most recognizable Jewish symbols, it is a symbol of divine protection.
- Lilies are often a symbol of purity, associated with the Virgin Mary and also with the Archangel Gabriel.
- Roses have all sorts of connotations in daily life: beauty, love, purity. Some of that carries over to the most frequent application of the rose in cemetery art—a broken rose bud symbolizing a life cut short, a flower snapped off before it had a chance to bloom.
- Thistle. Possibly an indication of Scottish ancestry but more likely a Christian symbol of earthly sorrow and sin.
- Professional symbols aren’t common in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, but we saw a revival of this tradition in the 20th Century. Three of our favorite examples are an artist, a firefighter, and a scientist (see gallery below).
- On the other hand as personalized memorials have increased in popularity, hobbies and other activities outside a person’s regular profession have become popular forms of cemetery art. In our newer sections look for motorcycling, recreational fishing, and other activities.
Hands clasped in prayer are a symbol of piety, while a hand pointing skyward directs the viewer’s attention toward heaven. Handshakes have different meanings, usually differentiated by the gender of the cuffs. Same-gender cuffs usually indicate an earthly farewell or heavenly welcome. Masculine and feminine cuffs on a handshake often symbolize matrimony or marital fidelity.
Hourglass. A classic symbol of mortality—the running out of time.
Inverted torch. A symbol you won’t find anywhere but a cemetery. Inverting a torch would extinguish a flame, a reference to physical death. That the flame still burns, and in a physically impossible direction, represents the belief that the spirit lives on.
Ivy. Ivy clings tenaciously, is evergreen, and thrives in the shade—characteristics that associate this plant with immortality and fidelity.
Lamb. In our Victorian-era sections, a lamb most frequently indicates the grave of a child, symbolizing innocence. The lamb is also a symbol of Christ.
Memento Mori. The Latin translates roughly “remember that you must die,” a reminder to the viewer of his or her own mortality. Found most often on red sandstones in the adjacent but separately owned Old Dutch Burying Ground.
Obelisk. An Egyptian motif that was copied by the Romans and in turn copied by the neoclassical Victorians.
Photograph. One of the most personalized of all memorials is a photo of the deceased. These are often a ceramic insert into a granite stone, but occasionally the image is inscribed directly onto the stone itself.
Rock. Frequently a Christian symbol of St. Peter.
Secret societies like Free Masons are, well, secret, so expect competing or conflicting interpretations of their symbols. Free Masons are frequently represented by an interlocking compass and square around the capital letter G, for the universal spirit of God. In one instance we have an amalgamation of symbols from lodges of two societies that were in operation in Tarrytown in the early 1900s: the Masonic compass and square are joined with the three-link chain of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, representing that organization’s principles of Friendship, Love, and Truth.
Tree. A healthy, living tree is most likely a Christian symbol, the Tree of Life. A broken branch or tree stump may indicate an early death–-a life cut short before its time, or it may be a memorial supplied through fraternal organization Woodsmen of the World. Weeping willows are a common symbol for sorrow, possibly with dual meaning as a representation of the Tree of Life.
Urn. A popular Victorian-era symbol of death, inspired by ancient Roman cremation urns. Often combined with a shroud, another symbol of death. Our older sections contain many variations on this motif.
Like many other cemeteries, we’ve got an abundance of neo-classical architecture. But we’ve also got some curiosities mixed in.
Egyptian Revival. A style that uses the imagery and motifs of ancient Egypt.
Gothic Revival. The resurrection of a medieval architectural tradition. The Owen Jones monument, our largest gothic revival structure, stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding classical styles.
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