I have discussed birds in cemeteries, and birds represented on gravestones multiple times in past blog posts, including my discussions of cemetery ornithology. I’ve addressed how cemeteries operate as aviaries involving live birds and sculpted and inscribed ones. Recently, I was walking in the grey, bland section of 1940s and 1950s graves at a local municipal cemetery, aware from the colour of the gravestones and flowers one sees far more commonly upon more recent graves. I was reflecting on how, while more modest in form and ornamentation, mid-20th century gravestones are generally underappreciated and sometimes derided as unaccomplished and bland. So I’m particularly keen to draw attention to this unpresuming gravestone.
At first, I simply thought it cute that such representations of birds could be so stylised and also so ‘chunky’, lacking the grace of swallows, swifts and martins as I tend to imagine them. Then I thought again about the dialogue between the text and the image and I realised what was going on. The migratory (and thus seasonal) swift, in all its elegance and darting movement, skimming low over water (represented by the four vertical reeds and the horizontal line) was being captured, but also was the sense of the human form metamorphosing into bird form upon death. So we are shown distance birds, heading off for destinations unknown, birds in full fight greeting a new arrival, and the rising bird broader because it is still undergoing its transformation from human soul to swift.
Of course, is this intended to be an explicit expression of aspired eschatology? Some kind of quasi-Christian avian understanding of ascent to Heaven? Or is it just what it is: a visual metaphor for both a journey up and away, and one in which the soul is not alone, but joins with fellow travellers who are pleased to be reunited after over 18 years following death?