York County Headstones: the Willow and Urn
“The winged hourglass clearly tells us that time flies; the hourglass on its side, that time has stopped for the deceased; the broken flower, absent branch, or felled tree, that life has been cut short. Numerous designs invite this kind of easy, simplistic interpretation, and lists have been prepared that suggest the probable symbolic significance of the motifs”… including the willow. Jessie Lie Farber – Early American Gravestones
In our jaunts from cemetery to cemetery in York County, there was a prevalent theme among many of the headstones during a certain time period. Trying to decide if the trees we often saw engraved at the top of the headstones were palm or willow, Dr. Martha Macdonald and I took several pictures in order to document and study the symbolism.
As it turns out, the trees depicted on many 19th century York County headstones are not isolated to just this area. Upon further research, I discovered that the trees were, in fact, weeping willows. Though it would have been fun to discover they were palm trees, representing the Palmetto State.
Nonetheless, the symbolism ran much deeper than our imaginings did: Headstones dating from around the 1880s all the way through to the 1920s in some locations feature the weeping willow tree and go beyond what may be an obvious assumption that the weeping part of the willow represents mourning.
In 18th century Europe, the weeping willow was a shrub whose image was to be brought to America. The attitude toward death during this time was obviously still that of mourning as expressed by the urn-and-willow motif. The willow’s slumping represents the weariness of the spirit. In Psalm 137, the people of Babylon sit down by the rivers and hang their harps upon the willows. They then weep for the loss of Zion.
Many variations of this image exist throughout York County cemeteries. Some feature a woman kneeling, the urn, or even angels in conjunction with the willow whose appearance represented a break from the formerly preferred death’s heads and soul effigies that seem stereotypical to us today. The willow and the urn addition to headstones represent a more sentimental view of death and softening of views that emerged from this era.
Seemingly counter to the Christian beliefs of 18th century York County the interest in the urn, used by Greeks to keep the ashes of the cremated, was a symbol of the Underworld goddesses, mostly notably Persephone. Orpheus, too, is represented in the willow in conjunction with death, as he went to the Underworld and brought with him a willow branch, apparently helping him get his gift of speech because, as you might know, Orpheus was a famous poet.
For York County residents of the 1800s, and the United States as a whole, the comparison between ancient Greece and its democracy with the former colonists’ “grand new experiment” in government was inspiration for copying everything Greek – including funerary art such as the willow tree on headstones, even in an obscure area like our Yorkville.
Yet, it is more likely that in a Protestant area such as York the willow was seen as the ability of the tree to live seemingly no matter how many of the branches were cut from as a symbol of immortality. In Christianity specifically, the gospel teaches the tree “will flourish and remain whole, no matter how many branches are cut off.