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And the Search for a Proper Memorial

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The Symbolism of the Grave Marker

link to image of James Smithson's crypt

Close up view of the lower portion of the marker

Close up view of the lower portion of the marker

Close up view of the lower portion of the marker

Close up view of the lower portion of the marker

James Smithson's sarcophagus shaped marble monument, which was erected on his grave in Italy and brought to America in 1904, is as much an object of veneration as one of curiosity. Many read the inscription, but few people today understand the symbolic language of the marker's very shape and its decoration.

Although Smithson's monument was designed in the shape of a sarcophagus, an ancient funerary form constructed to hold the earthly remains of the deceased, it was not his repository. It was merely a grandiose marker for the grave below. When the marker was installed in the Crypt in 1905, a red Tennessee marble base was built beneath it to house the coffin at the level of the floor.

The massive urn is supported on platforms carved in the shape of lions' feet. The lion represents strength, and its paws were decorative devices on chairs and thrones in both ancient Egypt and Greece.

Large central medallions, comprised of a moth inside a laurel wreath, decorated with laurel branches and festooned with ribbon, are carved into the front and back of the marker. Moths, having "died" as caterpillars, represent new life after death. In classical times, the long-lasting laurel leaf fashioned into a wreath signified achievement, victory, and eternity while laurel branches with foliage generally represent the Tree of Life.

A coved frieze is carved with (l-r) a bird, a laurel branch, a serpent, a scallop shell, another serpent, another laurel branch, and a moth.

The bird represents flight, particularly that of a soul ascending to Heaven. To the ancients, the serpent was an object of veneration, as a repository of great wisdom and power. The scallop shell was a favorite decorative device of the Greeks and Romans, who associated it with the sea, and thus with eternity and rebirth.

The marker is capped with a pine cone finial which symbolizes regeneration. This is particularly apt given that Smithson's bequest to America has borne fruit a thousand times over in its mandate for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

This page was adapted from "Of Sarcophagi and Symbols," by Michael Hendron,
Smithsonian Preservation Quarterly, Summer/Fall 1995.

This exhibit is based on an unpublished paper: "Smithson's Personal Effects, Proposed Memorial, and Crypt," by Richard E. Stamm, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

© Smithsonian Institution, 2008