Spring Grove Cemetery, in Cincinnati, OH, has been at the top of my list of cemetery travel destinations for some time. Covering 733 acres, it is one of the largest cemeteries in the United States, consisting of ponds, wildlife, footbridges, rolling hills, and mature trees. And it has more sculptures and statues than you will find in most art galleries. One of my favorites is the Erkenbrecher Memorial.
The Erkenbrecher Memorial
I kept returning to the statue over the course of a three day visit to photograph it under different lighting conditions. Andrew Erkenbrecher (July 4, 1821 – January 3, 1885) was born in the village of Heilegersdorf, Germany. Although he came from humble beginnings, Erkenbrecher had the opportunity to receive a quality education in Germany.
Andrew was fifteen when his family immigrated to the United States. Industrious and resourceful, he began working for a confectioner in Cincinnati, before becoming a hired hand on a farm. After saving enough money, Erkenbrecher built a small grain mill and a starch factory. This would become the basis for his future fortune and his ascension in Cincinnati society.
Founder Of The Cincinnati Zoological Gardens
In 1872, Cincinnati experienced a caterpillar plague, resulting in the deforestation of the city and surrounding areas. The quick-witted Erkenbrecher suggested importing various insect-eating birds from Europe, and studying which ones were the most effective in eliminating the caterpillars. The City Council approved.
In 1873, thousands of these birds were released into the city, and proved a great success in eliminating the caterpillar infestation. The most effective were the English Larks, Nightingales, German bullfinches, Bobolinks, Goldfinches, Linnets, Orioles, Robins, and Starlings.
Two years later, the city opened the Cincinnati’s Zoological Garden, modeled after those in Erkenbrecher’s native Germany. The Garden became home for the remaining birds imported from overseas.
The Sculptor And Foundry
The Erkenbrecher memorial was designed by August Mundhenk, a prominent Cincinnati sculptor. Born in 1848, in Hanover, Germany, his family immigrated to the United States in 1854. Upon graduating from Cincinnati Art Institute in 1867, he traveled across Europe for six years before returning to Cincinnati, where he established the Mundhenk, Louis Rebisso & Walther Art Foundry, the first of its kind in the Midwest. The foundry was instrumental in creating statues, memorials, and monuments across the United States.
The bronze mourner is in a partially-reclining position. Her left arm rests on a draped, ivy covered arm rest. In her right hand, she holds a tablet and stylus. Her body and legs are draped by the fabric. The fabric’s intricate folds are so realistic you almost expect them to move with the wind.
The lush vegetation surrounding the Erkenbrecher Memorial provides a wonderful opportunity for infrared photographers.
The Ivy — Rebirth
Ivy is derived from an Old English word representing fidelity and eternity. It is frequently carved into tombstones to represent immortality. Ivy’s ability of binding to different objects and plants symbolizes peace and loyalty, either in marriage or friendship. Its hardy, evergreen qualities also signify rebirth and serve as a symbol of the soul and eternal life.
The Drapery — The Closing Curtain
From the olden times and across various cultures, bodies were covered by a shroud or draped with the cloths. The covering served as a symbol of the curtain closing on the brief and transient life on Earth — the demarcation between life and death.
The Breast — Assistance
The symbolism of the female body (sometimes naked) in cemetery art represents the cycle of life, from the conception to birth and to renewal and rebirth after death. Moreover, in many cultures, breasts symbolize motherhood and nourishment, but also a willingness to help someone in need.
The Tablet — Words Of Hope
The mourner appears to be in a state of somber reflection as she stares at the tablet, with a stylus in hand. One imagines she she is contemplating the life and achievements of the man whose grave she adorns.
According to the self-guided walking tour information, the inscription on the tablet was translated into German, by the poet Friedrich Ruckert, whose poems were sometimes translated into music. The original text, however, was written by the 13th century poet, Rumi. The translation of the poem is:
“Life shrinks from Death in woe and fear,
Though Death ends well Life’s bitter need:
Life only sees Death’s dusky hand.
And not the shining cup it bears.
So shrinks the heart when Love draws near,
As through ʼtwere Death in very deed:
For wheresoever Love finds room,
There Self, the sullen tyrant, dies.
So let him perish in the gloom, —
Thou to the dawn of freedom rise.”
I find that the beauty and the symbolism of the statue and the sentiment expressed in the verse offer a good measure of comfort and relief from anxiety in the face of what awaits us at the end of our road.
Even if you are not a fan of cemeteries, I guarantee that you will be impressed by Spring Grove Cemetery’s sculptures, ponds, gazebos, mature trees, and park-like atmosphere. The cemetery provides an ideal environment to retreat from the distractions of every day life, get some fresh air and exercise, and contemplate the more spiritual aspects of life.
Should you visit, make sure to stop by the Erkenbrecher Memorial, and take some time to see the many other beautiful statues that grace the cemetery. To get the most out of your time at Spring Grove Cemetery, visit the site before your trip.
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