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What Do You Want on Your Gravestone?


I’m in cemeteries frequently and I’ve noticed a trend. Headstones decorated with little emblems or graphics, things that were important to the deceased. A canoe, bowling pins, a ball of yarn and knitting needles, a tractor, the Chicago Cubs’ logo, a warm pie, a man fishing.

I think I understand. People want something specific to be remembered by, some characteristic beyond names and dates. Personalization.

But in a cemetery, where we are so close to the nub of things, where a whiff of eternity lingers in the air, these symbols seem strangely frothy and fleeting to me. Really, do I want to be marked for centuries as a lover of Boston Terriers or admirer of Volkswagens?

Being critical of someone else’s gravestone seems pretty harsh, I realize.

I wonder if more than personalization, what we’re seeing is a search for identity—dare I say “meaning”? In a post-Christian time, old symbols, identities, and tribal markers don’t carry the meaning they once did. So, here lie Mr. & Mrs. Jones. He loved to fish and she was a wonderful baker.

On a recent long road trip, I was observing the stickers that decorate rear windows and bumpers of cars and trucks. Bumper stickers seem more or less out. There is still the occasional Prius with twenty different liberal causes, and the Denali with “Drill, Baby Drill” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” (They sure don’t look tread upon.) I always wonder if there isn’t a little self-mockery in those vehicles festooned with twenty stickers of whatever persuasion. After the “Compost” and “Co-Exist” stickers, they decided simply to let it rip.

This University of Iowa logo is everywhere here in Iowa. Fortunately, it’s considered pretty good design.

Instead of bumper stickers, sports teams’ logos seem to be the favorite these days. Not the discreet window sticker the size of a saucer. These are the size of a dinner plate. Yes, well-known pro logos, but also all sorts of colleges, maybe high schools, too. One menacing creature followed by yet another even more belligerent mascot. I’m a sports fan. I understand team loyalty, school pride. But there is no team I could ever care enough about to put an 18 inch logo on my car window.

I’m trying to understand my disquiet with logos and graphics on cars and tombstones. Worst case, it expresses that Dutch Reformed aversion to calling attention to yourself. Pride in our humility. Never push yourself forward. Stark and austere claiming to be tasteful. Or maybe I should confess to some haughtiness. (Two weeks ago here on The Twelve I learned that basically I am a snob!) These stickers, graphics, and logos are “beneath me.” Ouch! Mea culpa.

On the search for identity and tribe in a post-Christian culture, maybe I just need to accept that a rose, a rainbow, a wolf, or hawk do give people a sense of belonging. To consider such things unfit for eternal identity, to pity those who look to quilting or deer hunting as their lives’ greatest markers—maybe it is Christian imperialism at its worst, a denial of the goodness and joys of the world. More mea culpa?

The best motivation for my feelings of concern is so faint that I am not sure I can really claim it—only hope it. I’ve never thought of myself as an iconoclast. The very reason I notice these all these logos and emblems is because I am an amateur enthusiast of graphic design, symbols, wordmarks, fonts and the like. Like most in my generation, my theological training taught me to be ashamed of my statue-smashing Reformed ancestors and the philistine distrusters of art and beauty.

But maybe some healthy iconoclasm resides quietly deep within me. Just as there is no image, no word, no symbol that can ever hope to express the glory of God, so I can’t imagine an image that fully conveys who I am, or who you are. Our lives are too complex, too splendid, too immeasurable to find expression in a sticker, graphic, or logo. Maybe less is more.

Leaving these lofty and theoretical ridges for the plain of everyday life, what do I actually have on my car’s window or want on my gravestone? On the car I have a logo that our congregation “borrowed” from El Camino de Santiago, the popular pilgrimage in Spain, for our sesquicentennial—a stylized scallop shell. I like the fact that it suggests journey, baptism, even begging. I like that it is beautiful. I like that it is quietly Christian, but not in anyone’s face, maybe almost arcane

And as for my gravestone, I hope that’s a bit premature. I’ve always liked the inscription on William of Orange’s tomb in Delft, Netherlands, Resurrectionem Expectat (Awaiting the Resurrection) Not in Latin, of course. That would be snobby.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Maybe also why so many young folks are getting tattoos.

  • Yes, I don’t get all the bumper-stickers or tattoos either. I guess I am more apophatic in my religiosity than I think I am.

  • David Alexander says:

    Having seen this line, ” that Dutch Reformed aversion to calling attention to yourself. Pride in our humility. Never push yourself forward. Stark and austere claiming to be tasteful,” I was reminded on one cross cultural aspect of my marriage, a Southern Californian reared far from any center of Duchiness married to a midwesterner steeped in the aforementioned aversion. About the only thing I want in life is to call attention to myself. It’s one of the hardest things my longsuffering spouse has to deal with.

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