Art History In The Cemetery

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did you know...

Allegheny Cemetery was part of what was called the rural cemetery movement, in which cemeteries were relocated outside of city limits. People worried that inner city cemeteries were causing cholera outbreaks.

Why were 160 people itching to enter Allegheny Cemetery on October 27? The answer might surprise you. It's not ghost-hunting or grave-digging, it's art history. 

Generally speaking, cemeteries aren’t what you imagine when you hear the word “classroom,” but each year, Associate Professor of Art History, Beth Roark, Ph.D. heads to Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville to teach intrigued participants and American Art students how to read gravestones as historical texts. To hear her tell it, cemeteries are a place for exploring, learning, and collecting wings, feet, hands, etc—her office is ornamented with marble body parts. “I’ve always had a morbid sensibility. I love Stephen King, I love horror movies,” says Roark.

After taking a seminar on funerary sculpture in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, Roark opted to write her masters paper on angel sculpture in American rural cemeteries. Needing to see her subjects in the flesh, she headed to Allegheny Cemetery and sparked a lifelong love affair. Roark’s love of the macabre, however, was not echoed by others in her field—she calls it the “yuck factor,” finding that most art historians are reluctant to study in cemeteries for the same reason you may be reluctant to have a picnic there.

In the years following graduate school, she took a hiatus from gravestone studies, working at the Carnegie Museum and teaching in various locations. Upon arriving at Chatham in 1996, she was asked to focus her research in a wheelhouse that she truly loved and could make in impact in. Right away, she knew where she’d return.

I love being in the cemeteries. I’ve been working on Allegheny since the eighties and I still find new things every time I go. You’ve got this fabulous sculpture put in an environment intended to augment the feelings that the sculptures generate.
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DID YOU KNOW...

Cemetery sculptures are generally unsigned, meaning researchers don’t know who created the sculpture.

Nowadays, much of Roark’s academic work focuses on cemetery sculpture and she is the editor of Markers: The Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS). Roark works in both Italian and American cemeteries, each of which had their own version of the rural cemetery movement. She is predominantly interested in angel sculpture, analyzing what the angels are doing and what that may have meant to the people of the time period. “Did the angels act as a reinforcement of immortality or as comforting figures to help the bereaved get through a difficult period?” she considers. Though she can’t choose a favorite angel, an angel sculpture by Henry Kirke Brown in Allegheny Cemetery sparked her initial fascination.

Attitudes toward death certainly inform Roark’s work; she understands gravestones and cemetery sculpture to be a reflection of how mourning and death were processed during the time period. During the 19th century, “Death was present and somewhat of an obsession, it was always around,” Roark explains. In the century that followed, death became much more hidden, due in large part to the development of the funeral industry and hospitals. Around this time grave markers became much smaller and impersonal, further denying death.  

I’ve always viewed art more like a historical document. I appreciate the aesthetics but it’s the way art can help you access the past and understand it that I find most interesting.

Thanks to the benefits of reading gravestones through a historical lens, Roark’s peers in the field are wide-ranging. She works with anthropologists, linguists, historians, and more. Their scholarship is even more varied. Roark lists the topics written by recent Markers contributors. They range from contemporary Muslim gravestones in Detroit to wear-patterns on Irish limestone markers. She hopes to use the journal as a tool to shape the theory and discussion around what is still a new and emerging field.

Cemeteries are little microcosms of society: wealthy people with mausoleums up on the hill with stained glass or giant angel sculptures and poor people down in the valley with single graves.