Tag Archives: funerary art

“The artwork that was placed there for deceased loved ones was put there for a reason.”

My student is clearly indignant that the lover of graveyard art appropriated some objects from the cemeteries where he was employed.

I know she was indignant partly because the phrase “___ for a reason” is usually spoken in tones of indignation: “I told you not to touch the stove for a reason, Missy!” “I give homework for a reason, young man.” Implied is “for a very GOOD reason, and now you know, don’t you?”

And so I’m confident that indignation, rather than complete obliviousness, has produced this seemingly circular sentence. “For deceased loved ones” isn’t quite the reason the artwork was “placed there,” although it is perhaps the occasion, or the practical purpose. In the case of the assignment, she’s discussing a Tiffany window that had graced a family mausoleum until, neglected and evidently forgotten by any remaining kin, the mausoleum lost part of its roof and the walls began to shift, and the window itself sagged out of its frame, its glass stress-cracked and its leading weather-softened. The art-lover removed the window, took it home and restored it, and then sold it to an antiques fence (and was caught in the trap set to catch the fence).

Once upon a time, the window was put into the mausoleum, and the mausoleum was “placed there” to house the beloved remains—that is, the mausoleum was “for” deceased loved ones, and the window was part of the edifice. Both window and mausoleum commemorated the dead. But, at least according to western belief, the dead weren’t likely to be able to admire the window or the handsome stone-and-mortar work; they weren’t likely to celebrate being laid on shelves instead of buried in the ground, either, or consciously bask in the pools of colored light. What, then, could the “reason” be for erecting a lovely little building and installing a window made by a famous (and fashionable) artist?

The reason must have been multidimensional: to honor the dead (not merely to deposit them); to comfort the surviving family that they had “done right by” their forebears; to console and delight survivors when they came to lay wreaths or to bring more company to the deceased; … and to impress passersby with the dignity and wealth of the family.

In the context of the story, one might question the success of the installation. The mausoleum was in what the news report called a “neglected corner” of the cemetery, where passersby would be unlikely. The tomb itself was in a state of neglect and decay, meaning that the family had died out, moved away, or just forgotten about it: at any rate, nobody was laying wreaths, adding new “loved ones,” or stopping in for some private grieving. Nobody among the living was enjoying the window as it inched toward disintegration. No aspect of the reason was being fulfilled.

If I had been writing the essay, I might have followed the sentence with a discussion that went in exactly that direction: for a reason, but the reason is long forgotten. I probably would have been sad rather than indignant, and I probably would have been arguing that the theft hurt no one and should not be prosecuted as a felony. I believe such a case can be made.

My student didn’t go in that direction, though. She wrote her statement, and then she put her figurative hands on her figurative hips and went on to argue that no one had the right to take the artwork away, since it had been put there “for a reason.” She didn’t go into the reason at all, and she didn’t meditate on the pitiless tooth of Time and the decay of all earthly things.

This was, after all, comp class, not lit or creative writing.

And because she did NOT go into the reason, I suggested in my comments that the sentence was somewhat circular (or self-reflective) and seemed to belabor the obvious rather than making a point.

If students would come to office hours, so many interesting conversations might occur! But at the end of a paper in a stack of 40 papers, a sentence or two in cursive (which I write but which many of my students seem unable to read) can’t do much. I write my comments for a reason, but I’m not sure that the reason is fulfilled.