Death and birds: there are many dimensions to the relationship across human mortality and our feathered friends. Birds – especially carrion feeders – can be omens of death and birds can be regarded as the spirits of the dead ascending to heavenly realms or they can be psychopompic emblems: guiding the soul to eternal rest.
Birds and humans have their powerful hybrid forms as angels and cherubs. Where they are present as art in cemeteries they might be regarded as non-human guides for mourners to locate and re-locate the graves of their loved ones, and perhaps intended as guides for the soul of the deceased. They might also be seen as witnesses to the commemorated person’s life, dying and death as well as their soul’s fate. In other instances, they might be considered as fossilised mourners and inanimate consoling companions for the body and soul. In this barely articulated and subliminal ways, representations and artistic angels, cherubs and birds watch over the grave and those visiting, as well as the world to come.
In other cultures, birds can be harbingers of death, deployed as funerary performers, offered as sacrifices at funerals and can accompany the dead onto pyres and/or as grave-goods (as whole animals or fragments as food). Their presence might be seen to articulate the deceased’s social identity as composed by mourners, or to sustain transportation to the next world. Feathers and other avian body-parts might simply be a part of the soft furnishings of the grave, lining or concealing the bodies of the dead. Also, birds can be represented on a wide range of funerary art from biers and coffins to gravestones and tombs. In some past societies, there might be hybrid forms other than angels, such as mythological winged beasts, including dragons and hippogriffs dominate heraldic mortuary monuments.
I recently mentioned the range of Jesus and Mary motifs in Irish cemeteries. In my short trip to Ireland, I didn’t notice anywhere near as prominent avian allusions. There were appearances of birds in funerary art and architecture but only a few, occasional sculpted avians and gravestone motifs of birds, cherubs and angels.
Still, even when birds are not represented, they can be present. A distinctive dimension of the relationship between birds and cemeteries is live birds. Some British cemeteries and crematoria I know have dovecotes and birdfeeders in them; attracting birds as environments to please mourners but also to please the dead. Wild birds can be thus deployed in funerary environments.
Whilst in Ireland, I encountered many live birds living in and around cemeteries. In fact, sometimes it felt that Ireland might have more crows and rooks than gravestones! Moreover, birds weren’t simply there, they were often on gravestones. This is the thing: birds like to perch on bird sculptures: art mirroring death!
Whether there by design, attracted to these spaces, or just there en route elsewhere, I feel the presence of live birds is an under-appreciated and mildly unpredictable dimension of modern mortuary landscapes. They bring various aesthetics and sounds to the cemetery in itself; creating a sense of movement and noise in an otherwise silent and still space.
They also make for good, slightly eerie, photographs. As Father Jack would say: “Feckin Birds!”