The memorials added to Find a Grave® not only document the burial locations or dispositions of those who have passed on, but also memorialize and celebrate their lives. We’ve received messages from you that mention how visiting a Find a Grave memorial has helped with the grieving process. We all know the sadness and loneliness that follows after a loved one dies and are glad that leaving flowers and visiting the memorial helps.
A particular sculpture captures this sadness: the Angel of Grief, which graces the grave of Emelyn Story. The angel is dressed in classical Roman attire. Her face remains unseen unless you are close to the sculpture. The angels’ wings dominate the scene, but even they look to feel the despair as they drape over the altar to the ground. She seems to be abandoning all else as she steps up and falls on the altar of life in mourning. Her body is eternally slumped in bereavement. The laurel branches that she brought to the altar have fallen from her hand and lie at the base, their evergreen leaves, which symbolize victory and immortality, no longer victorious.
The “Angel of Grief Weeping over the Altar of Life” is located in Campo Cestio beneath the shadow of the once-occupied pyramid tomb of Caius Cestius. It was William Wetmore Story’s last sculpture, made to mark the grave of his wife, Emelyn.
William and Emelyn Story married in their youth and spent their lives together. They had four children: Edith, Joseph, Thomas, and Julian. William was a man of many talents. He was a well-known sculptor, practiced law, authored poems, wrote other literary works, and was an art critic. He also wrote a biography on his father, an Associate Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. After his father’s death in 1845, he was commissioned to create a memorial statue. It was then that William and his family moved to Italy for his study of sculpture. In Rome, he and his family were well known in social circles and his palace apartments in Palazzo Barberini (which contained forty rooms in total) became a hub for intellectuals, writers, and artists. William sculpted the memorial for his father and continued his artistry with many other famous sculptures.
William and Emelyn enjoyed each other’s company. At one point William was having difficulty finding time to read Ben-Hur, so he and Emelyn decided to read it aloud to one another—all 744 pages. Letters to friends say that they both “felt great regret as they finished the last page.” Theirs was a mature love, gained after being married for fifty years. Emelyn died in 1894 at age 73, and William, in his solemn grief, lost all interest in the affairs of life. He wrote to a friend after her death that Emelyn was “my life, my joy, my stay and help in all things…what is left seems to be but a blank of silence, a dead wall which, when I cry out…only echoes back my own voice.” (The Browning’s Correspondence)
The creation of the Angel of Grief was written about in an 1896 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine: “It was only when his children suggested that he should make a monument to her memory that he consented to resume work; the design he chose was the ‘Angel of Grief’ and it is wrought to exquisite finish, as are the statues modeled in his summer prime. When this was done, he left the studio never to return.”
William described the sculpture and his feelings to a relative: “It represents the Angel of Grief, in utter abandonment, throwing herself with drooping wings and hidden face over a funeral altar. It represents what I feel. It represents prostration. Yet to do it helps me.”(The Browning’s Correspondence)
After he completed this sculpture for the grave of his wife, he fell into a long illness and died the following year. He is buried underneath the angel, with his wife.
The Angel of Grief left its intended effect, evoking the feelings of sadness, despair, despondence, and mourning alongside its breathtaking beauty and eternal posture. Within a few years, copies of the angel started showing up in other cemeteries around the world and still do to this day. In popular culture the image of the angel has also been used on album covers and in a film.
We found quite a number of Find a Grave memorials that include a statue of the Angel of Grief. You can browse through them here.
The Angel of Grief exhibits the emotions that we feel when we lose someone we love. We’ve added a virtual flower of the Angel of Grief to our Flowers section. Feel free to use this as a token of remembrance for memorials of those that you miss and love.
Additionally, in remembrance, we have created a virtual cemetery for those whose lives tragically ended twenty years ago due to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Our hearts go out to all who are grieving because of the effects of the world-wide pandemic or who have otherwise lost family and friends.