A Host of Angels
by Adrian Bean
In the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an affable and wise angel called Clarence Odbody tries and manages to save the life of George Bailey, the earnest but apparently unsuccessful head of the Bedford Falls Mortgage and Loan institution. Clarence (“Angel, Second Class”) is elderly, going bald, scruffily dressed, overweight, clumsy and to put it kindly, ordinary. You wouldn’t be impressed.
Dr. Who sometimes meets angels as well. One of the scariest monsters are the Weeping Angels in “Blink.” They are frightening and very, very evil. When they first appeared they certainly gave me the willies. But unlike Clarence they have wings and look more like what we think of as being an “Angel.” Or rather, they do up to the point where they go feral and act more like vampires.
We tend to think that angels should look like the ones in the illustrations of Gustave Dore in “The Divine Comedy” or of William Blake perhaps. They must be tall dignified figures dressed in long white robes, with bare feet, a kindly expression, and magnificent feathery wings. There might be a halo involved, and the word “guardian” springs to mind. We feel that Angels have something about them. They are somehow holy, better than us, and a link with something supernatural. We like them. And very often, people choose to have an impressive angel figure as the memorial on their grave.
In an unscientific survey I carried out, the most common words that people associated with “Angels” were “wings, guardian, feet, holy, robes and messenger.” (Also mentioned were: Robbie Williams, Angel Cake, nurses, and Dr Who. As far as I know there are no gravestones anywhere with an Angel Cake carved).
But what, exactly, are angels, and why have one as your memorial?
Well, the deceased or the person who commissions a memorial, will want it to send a message about the person, and angels are perhaps chosen because of their symbolism. Over the centuries, and especially since Victorian times, objects such as flowers have taken on hidden meanings to those “in the know.” Lilies represent Innocence, a broken chain represents a life cut short and an anchor represents Hope. These associations have a place in other aspects of folklore, sometimes with a plausible explanation but normally not. For example, it seems likely that at some point someone somewhere suggested that the broken chain would be an attractive image for a “life cut short,” and this became widely accepted; in due course this symbolism became an unarguable truth. However, opinions on such symbols might differ; one school of thought might be that the three steps upon which many crosses are placed represent Faith, Hope and Charity, whereas another might argue that they represent the Trinity of God, Son and Holy Spirit. Both interpretations (and more) are plausible and attractive, so this aspect of a memorial could be chosen by two people with completely different understandings of what they had chosen.
So, what do Angels symbolise? Interestingly, there’s scope for a lot of confusion, as the “hard evidence” from biblical sources is uncertain.
Angels have a role in various religions, notably Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and of course, Christianity. They are mentioned in religious writings such as the Talmud, Koran and the Christian Bible. In the New Testament their existence is more or less taken for granted.
Although they differ in detail, interpretations generally agree that angels are spiritual beings that exist in Heaven, and who have a greater power than humans. They do not have a physical body, but often appear in a shining light. They worship God, execute his commands and help believers. There is a vast number of them, and as they can neither die nor procreate, there must be a fixed number. The New Testament goes into more detail than the Old, and perhaps this is where ideas about angels evolved into what is commonly accepted today.
The Hebrew Holy Book mentions only two angels, Michael and Gabriel, whereas other faiths mention angels such as Jophiel, Raphael and Uriel. In the Christian Bible, the “fallen angel” Lucifer is also mentioned (Isiah 14. “How you are fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”) but, there’s no general agreement amongst theologians as to whether this does actually refer to an angel named Lucifer who became known as Satan. Apollyon is also mentioned, as the angel of the abyss, (Revelation. 9 1-3) and hence is another “fallen angel.” Writers such as Milton muddied things by giving wonderfully poetic interpretations of biblical references, and commentators on the Bible over the centuries have built on the (sometimes slightly dodgy) assumptions made previously, so that things might have been misinterpreted but have become accepted without thought, and then taken as the reliable truth.
The angel memorials in Foster Hill Road Cemetery are largely Victorian or early twentieth century and reflect the common interpretation of what angels represented in that era.
Some are shown flying.
Oh yes, you might remember that Gabriel was an “Archangel.” That would surely indicate that he was superior to the common-or-garden “angel.” But no, in fact the later interpretations concluded that there were probably seven or perhaps nine levels or orders of Angels. Surprisingly, Archangels were placed near the bottom. The highest placed were Seraphim and Cherubim.
That’s right. Cherubs were considered near the top. In the Bible, they have particular and important duties, such as guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were expelled. Somehow over the years it became the accepted norm for them to be depicted as chubby young children, and to be honest, if I were a real Cherub, guarding the Garden of Eden, then I’d be a bit miffed by that.
But sometimes this might be just right for the grave of a young son or daughter. These two are in a part of the cemetery where many babies and young children are buried.
Although there’s no clarity about what Angels (or any other representations) really mean, I suppose the important thing is that it meant something comforting to the deceased and those who knew him or her. They can also be very imposing and beautiful, and add something to any cemetery.
Most are large and can be seen from a distance, but I wonder how many people walking the main path notice one of my favourites. A carefully devised stone has two angels, facing in different directions. One holds palm leaves (probably) to represent Victory or Resurrection, whereas the other holds a circle, which represents Eternity.
Have a stroll on a sunny day, and find these angels…or come on one of our guided walks and see a few that aren’t so easy to spot.
Sources of Information
A wide variety of Internet reference sites about symbolism in cemetery memorials and Bible interpretations. But remember: they often contradict each other! Just google “angels” and see. The following are just a random few.
October 10, 2022
August 13, 2022
April 04, 2022