Take a look at some old tombstones, and you might just see some astronomical imagery — especially of the sun. According to the book Indiana Stonecarver: The Story of Thomas R. Reding, by Ann Nolan and Keith A. Buckley (Indiana Historical Society Publications V. 27, N. 1, 1984), the sun on a tombstone was a “common nineteenth-century symbol [with] a dual meaning. The sun sets on earthly life and rises on a new life in heaven.”
The sun symbol was popular with Reding. He carved unique sandstone grave markers in his shop in Salem, Indiana, in the middle years of that century. His whose work can be found in stones across southern Indiana. His work is an unusual example of astronomy in art and architecture — and astronomy in art and architecture is itself somewhat unusual (click here for the entire series of “Astronomy in Art & Architecture” posts and judge for yourself how unusual it is).
Take a look at the sun image below. This is on the tombstone of Lucy Ann Harrell, who died in 1841. The disk of the sun (red arrow in the right-hand, enhanced image), is rising above a hill (green arrow). The sun’s light (blue arrow), which Reding represents pretty effectively by chiseling the surface of the stone, surrounds its disk.
The sun image below is on the grave of Robert Lusk, who died in 1845. It is much more stylized. The sun is on a flat horizon, with rays of light going out in all directions, very symmetrically.
The tombstone of John Clark (d. 1845, below) has a really cool sun image. It contains elements of both the Harrell and Lusk stones; it has both chiseling to give an impression of light, and symmetric rays.
Clark’s stone is in Salem’s Crown Hill cemetery, which is adjacent to St. Patrick’s cemetery and Catholic Church, both of which can be seen in the photo below showing the Clark stone (arrowed) and surroundings.
A very different sun image is on Elizabeth Potter’s stone (d. 1849). This is in Livonia Cemetery.
Livonia also has the grave of Elizabeth Hungate (d. 1839), which features a sun (below, left). Livonia is also, interestingly enough, the site of the grave of Isaac Newton (right)!
There are other stones in the Salem area with sun imagery on them, some of which are in really good condition, but some of which are badly deteriorated. This astronomical artwork is long-lasting, but it does not last forever.
My wife and I found all these stones using Nolan’s and Buckley’s book, which has photographs of many of these stones. The Lusk stone looks good today, but it was taller in 1984—it broke off and was re-set in the ground some time since then. Some deteriorating stones in the Salem cemetery have been encased in concrete to buy them time (above, center).
Nolan and Buckley show a photo of the stone of a Mary L. Gilbert (d. 1846) that has an interesting sun on it, made from five concentric semi-circles, but we could not find it. The sandstones withstand the weather really well, until water gets a toe-hold in the tops of them. Then the freeze-thaw process splits them up in dramatic fashion. Gilbert’s stone may have crumbled in the forty years since Nolan and Buckley’s book. Reding’s stones were roughly 130 years old when Nolan and Buckley photographed them; now they are about 170 years old. That 30% increase in age matters.
Well, the temporal nature of the world is what tombstones are all about. Incidentally, these stones are in a sense much like the “scary graveyard” decorations that people put in their yards in the USA at Halloween. I find the hopeful nature of the sun symbols on the Reding tombstones, with their reference to the end of earthly life and the dawn of a new life in heaven, to be an interesting contrast to the stereotypes we have regarding old cemeteries.