Death Reigns

Death Reigns woodcut by Kathryn Louise GerlachIn his excellent 1983 article on the history of American funerary arts (which saw their heyday, unsurprisingly, in dreary colonial New England), James Hijiya describes an 18th-century transition in Americans’ attitudes towards death, which was paralleled by a transition in the embellishments to the gravestones they designed. As “the balmy humanism of the Enlightenment spread comfortingly across the Western world,” he writes, “Americans lost much of their old sense of inveterate sin and their horrifying suspicion that they were damned. In this Age of Reason they acquired . . . a serene expectation of a well-deserved salvation.” This expectation was much better served by the angels which topped these reasoning Americans’ headstones than by the drab memento mori — winged skulls, creeping reapers — marking their Puritan ancestors’.

This print by Kathryn Louise Gerlach — a New Englander herself, whose parents, Kathryn and Gerhard, were in the mid-century respected stalwarts of bookbinding in the region — is a ludic reminiscence of this characteristically northeastern folk tradition from two centuries on, which blends elements from each of the periods Hijaya describes.

Gerlach’s stony totem, whose torso is a cartoonish heart and whose fingers point tellingly heavenward, is crowned with the words “Death Reigns.” Like the Death Heads of the Puritans, her figure signals starkly our mortality; but like the next century’s more hopeful, reasoning seraphim, it does so with an air of confidence, if not subtle defiance. But in its rock-star gesturing, leafy surround, and stylistic playfulness, Gerlach’s funereal emblem is of course more of a semi-mordant send-up of this New England folk tradition than a serious study in mortality.

Troy Sherman, Grad Art ’21