Angel of Grief

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.

102 comments

    • A statue that will never leave my lifetime
      Andersonville prison. I visited the camp , so Sad. My 3 greats cousin survived .

  1. I’ve always been moved by and loved the beauty of this statue. Thanks for posting.

  2. I’ve always loved that sculpture and to hear the reason for its creation is both sad and beautiful

    • There is one in a cemetery not far from here. I have always wondered about it. Your story helped enlighten me so thank you for sharing. Life should be a daily lesson to learn something new and this story is very much that. Thank you.

  3. This story is beautiful. The Angel of Grief sculpture is simply magnificent! Thank you for sharing.

  4. This story is wonderful. The angel stunningly beautiful and sad! a thank you for sharing.

  5. Thank you so much for your incredibly poignant story on how the statue of “The Angel of Grief” became a final tribute to a one very special woman. I have not heard of a more touching love story than this one. As a active member on Find a Grave, I look forward to these newsletters so much! It makes me feel that my work is important, valued, and a help to others who are just beginning their journeys into their family genealogy.

  6. Such a heartfelt story. Thank you for adding the Angel of Grief to the memorial library as we approach the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.

  7. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and for the Angel of Grief token we may leave memorials.

  8. This is the first story I have seen on Findagrave.com but it has inspired me to see if there are others. What a beautiful love story and a fabulous monument. Thank you so much for doing this.

  9. There is an Angel of Grief located at Stanford University, near San Francisco. After the 1906 Great Earthquake, it was photographed with ruined buildings all around. It came to symbolize the tragedy of the 3,000 + people who died as a result of the earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed San Francisco, April 18, 1906.

  10. This wonderfully beautiful description and background story on the “Angel of Grief” sculpture is so moving. The sculpture itself is just beautiful. I hope to be able to see one some day. Thank you.

  11. I love the incredible stories on this newsletter and I adore FindaGrave! Haven’t yet responded on here, so apologies if my message winds up in the ozone.. :p

    • It is under the Religious section, grouped with a previous angel virtual flower.

  12. I’ve never seen the beautiful sculpture or heard the heartbreaking story, and am so grateful to you for posting it — Thank you!

  13. Angel of the earth, shows us all that our lives can be blessed by the “Angel of Grief” as she grieves at death door like us morals! Thanks for the enlightening story.

  14. Such a beautiful momument and a great love story behind it. Thanks for sharing. As a researcher in genealogy, working on so many family trees and also helping other with their research, I am mooooooost greatful for all of the entries and pictures that are on findagrave. They share so much information that otherwise would be very hard , if not impossible to have.
    A huge heart felt thank you to each one that has and will contribute information to findagrave. God Bless each one of you and keep up the good work………..
    Mildred Treadway

  15. I think the profile photo credit belongs to ‘phil’ rather than ‘dogmadic’.

  16. There are also one in 2 cemeteries in MS. One is a Teasdale grave in Columbus, MS, and the other, I can’t remember the name, in Aberdeen, MS.

  17. My wife and I read about the pyramid tomb and went to see it during our visit to Rome. We walked around to the street behind it and found a cemetery for Protestants. It was well kept and had many interesting grave monuments. William Story’s Angel of Grief was there and we found it to be magnificent. It was interesting to read the story about it.

  18. What a wonderful, poignant and sad love story thank you for sharing. This is the first time I was aware of this website thank you again.

  19. The sculpture is so heartbreaking. I continued on to the 9/11 memorial and couldn’t scroll past the first page. Just incredibly tragic.

  20. Such a touching story. Thanks for telling it. This couple loved each other with all their being. It is so sad to have lost the meaning of life without the one you love. He did the best he could. But sadly he did not realize that life goes on here on earth. But to be together in death is a true blessing.. GOD<S Blessing sustained him the best he could do.

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  21. Thank you for this beautiful story and the statue that perfectly depicts what it is. Very moving!

  22. I’ve always marveled over this painful but breathtaking statue. Thank you for the story, grief is so personal, so deep, we can only do our best to process it and keep going. He gave us this heart-wrenching visual for always. I hope they are resting in wonderful peace, together.
    Thank you so much for the memorial tributes for 9/11 and the pandemic as well.

  23. I have always loved this statue but never knew the story behind it. Thank you this is my first newsletter but I am looking formore in the future.

  24. What a beautiful statue. I have never seen or heard the story, until now. She is so wonderful and captures what all of who have lost someone we love feel. When my son was murdered 14 years ago, that is exactly how I felt.The overwhelming pain in my heart,and to this day I still feel.The Angel is so beautiful and so sad at the same time. Thank you so much for the beautiful story.A love story that can never be topped by another.May all that have lost loved ones, rest in peace.

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