For children it is a waste of time, for adults often a luxury: sleeping. Everything alive must sleep. Death has been described as “eternal sleep” for centuries, and sculptors have expressed it in numerous works of cemetery art. Many statues and sculptures seem to slumber peacefully after life sang its lullaby.
I am particularly fond of a white marble statue of a young woman in Ohlsdorf Cemetery. She lies there huddled, her beautiful face relaxed and her eyes closed. She is holding a rose in her hand. There is something strangely touching and innocent about this statue. The inscription on the pedestal reinforces this impression. It reads: I thought back, I thought forth just one thing: to woo happiness for you. I didn’t think that you might die.
She’s not gone, she’s just sleeping… We also find this thought in the Bible:
“And all wept, and bewailed her: but He said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth.”
— Luke 52:8 KJV
Death’s Little Brother
The idea of sleep as Death’s little brother derives from ancient Greece. Greek mythology knows a god of sleep: Hypnos. Depicted as a gentle young man with wings on his temples, his voice has enormous power over people, and even gods. Hypnos is father of four sons, collectively known as the “Oneiroi,” the dark-winged spirits of dreams. The most famous of them is Morpheus (shape), the god who can take on any human form. The other three sons are Phobetor (fear), the personification of nightmares, Phantasos (phantasy), who embodies imagination and ingenuity, and Ikelos (likeness), who is in charge of realistic dreams.
Because sleep forms an inevitable part of every human’s existence, Hypnos owns half of the lives of those he visits. The word “hypnosis” reminds us of the god of sleep, who — with the power of his voice — transports people into a different state of consciousness.
Twin Brothers of Greek Mythology
Hypnos is the twin brother of Thanatos, god of Death. Thanatos represents non-violent, gentle death. With his powerful wings, he flies quickly to free people from the agony of suffering. In art he is often depicted as a youth. His symbols are the poppy, butterfly, sword, and an upside-down torch. At times, Thanatos is described as having a heart of iron, and a spirit of bronze, holding equal hatred for men and gods alike. In other situations, he cradles people in the gentle sway of Death’s peaceful crib. Despite his illustrious image, Thanatos is feared as much as longed for, and remains an enigma in Greek mythology.
The term “thanatology” — describing the science of Death and its manifestations — contains elements of his merciless as well as friendly nature.
Another of my favorite statues depicts a sleeping young woman. In front of a large, broad rectangular wall in a semicircular niche, the bronze beauty rests in a horizontal position. A panel attached to the pedestal of the 1919 tomb bears the inscription: I sleep, but my heart is awake. The sculptor Arthur Bock designed his figure accordingly: her eyes are closed and her left hand lies on her heart. Surrounded by dense rhododendron bushes, the modest, but impressive tomb conveys the depth of how much someone loved the deceased.
An Unsolved Mystery
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BC) stated that the awakened have a common world; in sleep each turns to his own. He considered sleep to be an intermediate stage between life and death.
Man is in control of his actions only when he is awake. In sleep, however, it is the subconscious that takes over. Symbolically, we must give up control of our lives if we want to sleep. A visit by Hypnos can be a longed-for refuge, particularly when our lives trouble us. After a good night’s sleep, many have awoken to find surprising answers to life’s difficult questions and discover unexpected correlations that had escaped their attention during their wakeful moments.
“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, On the Wisdom and the Meaning of Life
Though this marble angel is experiencing eternal slumber, her face wears the unmistakable expression of peace and contentment. She appears to have found her answers to life’s vexing questions.
Even two and a half millennia after Heraclitus, sleep remains one of the unsolved mysteries of biology, and a puzzling phenomenon. Far less is known about sleeping than about dreaming. The most interesting explanation for the need to sleep is that a sleeping brain repeats and consolidates what it experienced while awake. Unimportant things are deleted, making space for something new.
Many believe that if such deep connections remain during sleep, they may persist after death as well. Hardly any other sculptor did portray this idea more beautifully than Arthur Bock. One of his tombs, designed in 1929, depicts a kneeling couple framing a sarcophagus. A bouquet of roses blossoms where their hands meet.
Apart from the touching message this sculpture conveys, I am always amazed by the delicate crafting of the scarf-like garments.
Perhaps the ancient Greeks were right in believing that sleep and death belong together, their purpose being renewal in this life and the next, respectively. Until the day comes when we can confirm this for ourselves, we are left with the wonderful works of cemetery art, depicting death as a form of sleep. They remind us that in our final night on this earth, we will listen to our own lullaby of life.
“To die, to sleep –
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…”
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
For those who want to read more about sleep, and how we can use its powers to rejuvenate our lives, I recommend the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley.
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