Remembering in Stone
David Anthony Harbour
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When writing incised letters upon stone and clay tablets ("epigraphy") first appeared in human society, it must have seemed as magic to the common folk. Indeed, writing was mostly reserved to the ruling and leading classes of people in ancient times as it tended, along with every other sort of advanced knowledge, to empower those who had it over those who didn't. And since ancient history is mostly an account of how despots controlled their subjects, we can understand why the elite classes guarded it as something magical, beyond the ken of the ordinary folk.
The invention of writing enabled persons to record their thoughts and project them at a distance without the spoken word. In the ancient world writing was used for the same purposes as it is today but was usually executed in different media than it has been in our own recent generations.
The majority of routine writing- official correspondence, record keeping, etc. in the ancient world was executed upon clay tablets. During much of the Mediterranean classical era of history, writing was incised upon wax tablets, which could easily be recycled and used again.
But more than any other form, the art of writing upon stone was magical: for here was a way to communicate a thought in imperishable and immutable form across the ages down through time- a way to communicate with the far distant future. An inscription on stone might survive to reach and deliver its message to the fiftieth, or even the five hundredth generation of a people, a society of human beings. And it could reasonably be expected to deliver its message unaltered by time and circumstances deep into the future. Thus the power of the epigraph to endure and communicate its message to future generations was far greater than the only previous known form of keeping and communicating cultural traditions from one generation to the next: human memory and human speech. The retelling of an account verbally from one generation to another, relying on human memory, was not even so certain a thing that one could depend on it enduring at all for any length of time, let alone in an accurate form.
Pharaohs, kings, and emperors were in love with this new technology as a way to project and extend power and image. And because the more common folk were prevented from understanding epigraphy as technology, they tended to think of it as somehow supernatural- a god-like power granted by God (or the gods) to god-like rulers. Indeed, in many ancient societies, pharaoh or emperor was thought of and revered as a god. And if the common folk tended to forget this, the king and his viziers could and would go to clever and sometimes brutal lengths to remind them of it.
As a somewhat dramatic example of the art of epigraphy by rulers in ancient times, we have an inscription made by the Persian King Darius "The Great" (Darius I), from the era when the Jews were repatriated to Judea after their captivity by the Babylonians. Darius ruled from 522 to 486 B.C., and shortly after he assumed rule of Persia, he had his hands busy trying to suppress multiple uprisings in his empire seeking to overthrow the established ruling authority. After he successfully quelled these uprisings, he ordered a large inscription commemorating his victory to be made on a high rocky outcropping in a place prominently visible to traffic. In addition to a quite lengthy inscription in three languages, there is a scene sculpted in high relief, depicting Darius, followed by two attendants, putting his foot on the prostrate rebel chief and pointing to the winged disc above him, symbol of the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda. Before him stand nine rebel leaders, their necks tied together with a rope and their hands manacled behind their backs. If there was a message here for the common folk as they passed by, it might have been this: "Let this be a lesson to you, and don't you forget it".
In the ancient world, epigraphy served the purpose of projecting and proclaiming the power of rulers over their subjects and adversaries.
Today, the ancient technology of epigraphy is still with us, but is the servant of all, rather than just royalty. From the beginning of its use, epigraphy was called into service by those generations wanting to remember their progenitors. Human memory is faulty and fragile, and the spoken word as handed from one generation to the next accumulates errors and corruption in accuracy. Not so for a message inscribed in stone. Many of our most ancient epigraphs are from tombs and graves, memorializing the deceased person interred therein. Of course, most of these epigraphs are for those of the royal entourage or court.
The power of the epigraph to span the generations is amazing: Plutarch, a Roman writer of the early Christian era, tells of the epigraph on the tomb of Cyrus, king of Persia. Cyrus was an earlier predecessor of Darius and is famous in history for ordering and enabling the repatriation of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity (a difficult project that Darius inherited from Cyrus to complete). On his tomb at Pasargardae, there was an inscription ordered by Cyrus ("Cyrus the Great"). Before it was defaced hundreds of years later, it was read by many persons, including Alexander the Great, the famous Greek empire builder, when he visited Cyrus' tomb on his return from India. Plutarch reports that Alexander was deeply moved by the inscription on the tomb, which read: "Oh man, whosoever thou art and whencesoever thou comest, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cyrus, and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth which covers my body."
Today we also remember our departed loved ones with epigraphs recorded on imperishable granite or marble, and sometimes in other alternative durable media. Those familiar with the variety of epigraphy in modern cemeteries know that it may take many forms ranging from recitals of mere facts and dates to impassioned flights of verse and other literary devices. But more than anything, a memorial stone expresses in character and degree the reverence a generation has for its progenitors. From this perspective, stone is a projection of thought and feeling. It is, and has been for a very long time, the best device we have been able to think of for obtaining some durable representation of the immortality that the human heart has always craved, has always sought. Human beings have a built-in sense of mortality, immortality, and eternity. The most eloquent expressions pertaining to our consciousness of these concepts are usually found in cemeteries, inscribed in imperishable stone.
The average person is pretty busy about the business of living to take much notice of cemeteries and what they contain. But soon or late, a person must take into account his or her mortality, or immortality, and the fact of eternity. Most defer this until very late in life. Many people who are cosmology minded, however, take an interest in these aspects of the human condition earlier in life. And often, they discover the richness of meaning that cemetery epigraphy holds for one who makes inquiry of it.
I have been visiting cemeteries for a very long time. I have found profound and moving epigraphs that tell not only of the love of those who rendered those epigraphs for their interred loved ones, but also of the love of those who are interred for others. Many grave monuments reveal, with a little application of thought to what is inscribed on them, stories of tragedy and pathos. There is, for example, in our cemetery a pair of monuments for a couple married early in the last century. An inspection of dates, names, and other pertinent facts reveals that the young man's wife died in childbirth, and was buried with her infant in her arms. He was buried, four decades later, next to her.
Our own cemetery is full of accounts, written on stone, of the thoughts and feelings of those surviving their loved ones. In addition, our cemetery is rich with "stone art"- beautiful, graceful, sensitive sculpture in granite and marble (and other media) as evocations of meaning and feeling for those who survive for their deceased loved ones.
Experiencing these monuments with their art and epigraphy can help enhance one's awareness of the significance of such matters as mortality, immortality, and eternity- questions we will all have to deal with soon or late. One's life may therefore be enriched by not deferring a contemplation of these things, but rather, by making thoughtful inquiry into these aspects of the human condition now.
Except for the pictures of the ancient Egyption obelisk epigraphs, all of the photographs of monuments, sculptures, and incised artwork on grave monuments here on our web pages are from our very own Enid cemetery. Our cemetery is a rich repository of human thought, feeling, artwork, and history. One cannot come away from a leisurely visit to our cemetery without having become in some way enriched and or enlightened by the experience.
Most of us have loved ones interred in our cemetery. Many of us expect one day to also be interred there as well. Considered from this perspective, our beautiful cemetery belongs to us all, and is therefore deserving of our continued and sometimes special support.
Our cemetery staff is eager to show our fine cemetery to visitors. Visit us to see our many beautiful monuments. Many of these incorporate finely executed scupture in their design. There are also several masterfully executed free standing sculptures in the round as monuments (see our other article on our site here, "Stone Art").
We've been working hard to improve the appearance of our cemetery and would like to show you recent improvements and new works in progress. Please call our office at (580)366-9473 with your inquiries about visiting.
© 2001 David Anthony Harbour
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