Visit the Design Graveyard…


With Halloween just around the bend I’m reminded of one of my favorite haunts (no pun intended) for thinking about design – old graveyards. The monuments in all shapes and sizes are like a lexicon of design, sort of a mini museum without the alarms. My last blog post had a photo of an obelisk shaped town marker in Nantucket which inspired Dave Fisher to send me these obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

Mathers Obelisk

photos from a nearby cemetery. I had to grin inside at the thought that I’m not the only one strolling through the democracy of the dead, trying to keep my designers eye alive. Dave crafts free form wooden bowls which are featured in the November 2014 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He commented “To my eye, the most beautiful obelisk in the entire cemetery is the Mathers obelisk.  Much of the reason, I believe, has to do with the base (plinth?).  The quickening curve of the base roots it firmly to the ground, then leads the eye on a ride up to the obelisk itself.  There is still a clear indication of where the obelisk itself begins, but without jarring the eye on the way up.  The whole piece is organic, much like a tree rising from the ground. ”  

obelisk 2

Packard Obelisk

I concur with Dave’s educated eye and would add that several other examples, the Roberts and Packard obelisks, look like they took a standard monument and plopped an obelisk on top of them. Not certain I ever noticed that before until they were side by side with the Mathers example. One is a unified organic composition, the others are just combinations of parts. There’s a powerful lesson illustrated here. How often does a design or a work of art fail because it’s a busy mechanical  assemblage of parts rather than an organic flowering? I’m interested in your thoughts as you compare these different interpretations of a design.


George R. Walker

obelisk 3

Roberts obelisk


Mathers base detail

Mathers base detail

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5 Responses to Visit the Design Graveyard…

  1. Damien says:

    It would be interesting to know the dates. If the Packard obelisk is the oldest, it can be seen as successive improvements on design and technique. Or just a mine is bigger contest.

  2. walkerg says:

    One of the lessons a stroll through a graveyard will show is that every era had their share of kitsch, mundane, and truly good design. Perhaps that’s one of the best parts about looking at all the carvings, moldings, and ornament in stone. One can compare good, better, best – or sometimes bad design.


  3. snwoodwork says:

    As far as which is most pleasing to the eye, I think the Mathers wins, no question. I like the lack of ornamentation and the small base. Almost like the obelisk sits upon a building that has been buried and this is all we can see. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the Roberts looks like it was assembled from leftover parts of a Lego kit. Still, it is interesting to look at all three side-by-side. I agree that knowing the dates would be interesting.

  4. Dave Fisher says:

    Good excuse for another walk through. Hopefully, I’ll have some specific dates tomorrow. If I recall, most of the obelisks in the cemetery, and there are many, are from the later 19th century.

    • David Fisher says:

      Well, here’s an idea of the years. Hard to say for sure without looking up cemetery records when the monuments were put in place. These larger monuments typically serve as a center piece of sorts to mark the graves of an entire family. Some of the individual markers could have an earlier death date that the larger obelisk itself.

      Anyway, the Mathers obelisk is surrounded by 15 family members, the earliest date of death is 1858 and the most recent is 2010. Based on some other details, I would guess the monument was erected in the 1875-1900 range.

      I would be pretty certain the Packard obelisk was ordered in 1873. That is when Dr. D.B. Packard (of the car making family) died and there are some other details I won’t bore you with that indicate the monument being erected upon his death.

      The Roberts obelisk is in the same range. The father, “Miner” (interestingly, his wife was “Salome”), died in 1879. A son or brother is also inscribed on the monument; he died in 1849.

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