The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cairns: More Than Just a Pile of Rocks

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

A cairn is a man-made pile or stack of stones, used as a landmark.  The word is from the Scottish Gaelic language and is actually the plural of the singular word, “c├árn.”  (So says Wikipedia)  Cairns can be found all over the world, created by many different cultures, and for different reasons.  Cairns would seem to be an ancient construction, but they are very much still being created and used today.  For example, cairns serve as hiking trail markers, or coastline navigation tools for sea-going vessels.  And they can serve as artistic, historical or memorial expression for their builders.  

The latter is what usually comes to mind when I think of a cairn:  a burial marker, made of many rocks carefully placed with great effort in honor of the deceased.  According to Wikipedia, there is an old Scottish tradition where burial cairns were erected on hilltops, and visitors who came to pay their respects carried a rock up to the cairn and placed it on the pile, thus increasing the size of the cairn.  (Interestingly, there is a Jewish custom in visiting a gravesite that includes placing a stone on the grave, to acknowledge the visit.)  

Douglas Keister, in his book Stories in Stone, states that almost all cultures associate rocks with “permanence, stability, reliability and strength.”  He also asserts that rocks have great meaning in Christian lore, comparing God to a rock of strength and comfort for the believer.  In Psalm 18:2, it is stated that “the Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer…”  And Christ compares Saint Peter to a rock in Matthew 16:18 when he says, “…thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…”  

In many of the pictures below, you’ll see a cairn supporting a cross.  I am not sure where this symbolism comes from, but there is the hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” with these opening lines:

“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
How I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.”

That hill could be a cairn of rocks covered over my grass and moss, perhaps.

Another possibility comes from some Internet research:  In Utah in 1857, it is alleged that Mormons massacred over 120 men, women and children who were part of a wagon train emigrating from Arkansas to California.  The Mormons were in the middle of the “Utah War” with the federal government, and war hysteria combined with strict Mormon teachings is said to have lead to the massacre.  The Mormon militia disguised themselves as Native Americans and attacked the emigrant camp.  The fighting lasted for five days, and by then, the Arkansas people could see their attackers were white men.  Another faction of the Mormon militia went into the camp under the pretense of helping the emigrants escape their “Native American attackers.”  They escorted the emigrants out of the battle site, only to lead them into an ambush by the Mormon militia, with the aim to leave no one who could identify the disguised attackers.  Only 17 children, all under the age of seven, were spared.  The ensuing investigation was interrupted by the Civil War, and later resulted in the conviction and execution of only one Mormon militiaman.  

What does this have to do with a cairn and a cross?  I’m getting to that.  To remember the victims of the massacre, in 1859 at the scene, Major Carleton of the US Army and his men constructed a large rock cairn with a cedar cross atop it.  The Mormon leader, Brigham Young, reportedly came to the site and ordered it dismantled.  (The Christian cross is not a recognized religious symbol of the Mormon religion.)  The monument was later replaced by the Army in 1864, and has been subsequently dismantled and replaced over the years by the US Park Service and the Church of Latter Day Saints (what the Mormon Church calls itself today).  The cairn still exists today, but sans cross.   So I have no proof of the following  hypothesis, but, my hypothesis is….could the many cairns that appeared in the late 19th century cemeteries complete with a cross on top be part of a response to the Massacre at Mountain Meadow?  I don’t know.  But it is plausible, I think.  I would need to research newspaper editorials in late 1857-1860, to see if the massacre was discussed.  So much to research, so little time…

The monuments seen below represent cairns, but they are not a pile of individual stones.  Instead, they are each a single piece of marble or granite, carved to look like cairn of many stones.  Many of them have scrolls on them, identifying the deceased.  Sometimes ferns (for humility) and ivy (for steadfastness) adorn the rocks and/or the cross.  My dad has never been able to drive past one of these (no matter how many we’ve seen) without exclaiming, “Oooh, look at that!  I LIKE that!”  I know, Pop, I know.  :)

Oh and P.S., I don't know why it's so hard for people to post comments on here.  Could be perhaps because it's free.  (And I like free, personally).  But speaking of free, you can always feel free to email me with comments.
Thanks for reading. 

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA 

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA  (this is not the type of cross I mean...the upright ones are coming)

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Jervis, NY

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Port Jervis, NY  (this is not a cairn, really, but an interesting home-made gravestone of concrete with pebbles in it)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA  (I wonder if this was done by the same carver/company who did the one in the first picture, in Easton Cemetery)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA  (this wealthy gentleman was murdered by his manservant)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA  (this is the type of monument the Army erected in Utah)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA  (the cross or urn that used to be on the top has broken off)

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA  "Only Waiting"  Ivy for steadfastness, ferns for humility, lily of the valley for innocence or return to spring, and note the dove at the top left of the scroll

Lemon Cemetery, Lemon, PA

Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA  (This is the gravestone of George Lippard, the Philadelphia writer and originator of the fraternal organization "Brotherhood of the Union"  See my blog about that at Lippard, Literature, Lodge and Labor)

Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, PA

Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, PA  (this is also missing its cross or urn at the top)

Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, PA  (this is missing a cross, judging from the rectangular slot at the top)

Northwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Northwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

St. John's Lutheran Cemetery, Nazareth, PA

West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Carversville Cemetery, Carversville, PA

Easton Cemetery, Easton, PA

Northwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another facinating article.