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Background on Monument Imagery

"The struggle between icon and alphabet is not, to be sure, anything new . . .Electronic display both invites manipulating the icon/alphabet mixture and makes it much easier to write."
--Richard Lanham, author of "The Electronic Word" (1993, p.34)

Composition theorists who study the impact of new computerized technologies upon writing often focus their investigations on educational, professional, or literary settings, but I would like to broaden that focus to examine the impact of computerized technologies on the design and manufacture of gravestone monuments.

At first it might seem a bit odd, a compositionist studying gravestones, but considering how many people in the United States erect monuments to commemorate the dead, far more than will ever take a college writing course or publish documents electronically or in print, I think that the writing on gravestones is a valid and important area to study. I feel, as does Richard Meyer (1989), founder and chairman of the Cemeteries and Gravemarkers section of the American Culture Association, that the study of monuments "may legitimately lay claim to having a respectable place" in academia (p. 2).
Why this Project?
What particularly fascinates me about monument design is the changing use of visual imagery. Instead of using words incised in the stone to describe the dead, more and more people are having pictures cut into the stone to convey those attributes. Instead of writing, "He loved farming," a picture of a tractor is used, as this detail from a monument in Nebraska shows.
Detail of a Tractor on a Monument
Concerns about Access  


A Brief History of Visual Images on Monument Design

Of course, there has always been the possibility of adding visual images (versus alphabetic images) to a monument.

Because people's choices for images are shaped by "the aspirations, attitudes, customs, and values of a society in given time"(Mueller, 1976, p. 32), there is a marked difference in monument design from period to period. During the 17th century, people were not only limited by what the local stone carver could create, but also by the strong Puritan emphasis on religious symbols. The most common images chosen, at least judging from New England cemeteries, were winged cherubs, death's heads, coffins, and skeletons, all images that marked the passage of the soul from earthly vessel to heaven (Williams, 1973; Jacobs, 1973; McNelly, 1997; Carlson, 2000). In the 1800's, when stencils were made, the imagery was still religious, but it actually became less diverse because many stonecarvers would just rely on the stencil designs they bought from large manufacturing companies. This led to what some monument enthusiasts lament as the "fad for the popular (and boring) urn-and-willow style, which was reproduced with such tedious regularity" (McNelly, 1997). (For brief online explanations of the religious symbolism in monument design, visit the external site Tombstone Art and Symbols.)

In the twentieth century, according to monument historian Mueller (1976), who wrote prior to the computerization of the monument industry, monument design "tends to lack religious impact. Little heed is paid to the passage of the soul to eternity . . .the continuing preponderance of oval, serpentine, or square-topped horizontal tablets with only the last name, present overwhelming evidence of the absence of any real religious feeling . . . Nor is much said about the individual and his life" (p. 32).

I agree with Mueller that 20th century monuments tend to be more secular than in earlier time periods, but with the advent of computerized technologies, her last statement, that little is "said about the individual and his life" is changing. People may have been reticent about using words to recreate their lives, but, judging from the monuments erected in the past few years, more people are using images to say something about their lives or the lives of their loved ones. This move to authoring a person's life in pictures has become more prevalent in the past ten years because the range of options has increased--to the point that monument companies can put into stone almost any picture a person wishes, as one monument company explains on its web page.

Since our conversion to computer design, a whole new world has opened up for us. We are able to offer unlimited fonts and designs in stone. From classic automobiles to rustic scenes . . . just bring us your line art and we will be able to re-create it (Lincoln Granite, 2000, par. 3).

At the same time that the possibilities for visual design have expanded, the cost for visual images has decreased. Lou Ann Herstead (personal communication, November 2000), a monument designer in Nebraska, estimates that, adjusting for inflation, the cost for most images has decreased by at least 40 percent since the advent of computers. This leaves many families with a dilemma, one that is becoming more common in all areas of composition, and that is not only how to say something, what words to choose, but also how to visually represent it, what images to use.

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