Field Guide

Excedra

Another often seen cemetery monument is the excedra. These monuments are usually shaped like a curved bench, but there are also many examples where the bench is straight. The ancient Greeks constructed public shelters known as stoa. In their simplest form, these structures consisted of a colonnade, walled on one side and roofed. At intervals along these shelters were recesses with seats carved into them. The seating areas were known as excedrae, the Greek word for "out of a seat". These structures were frequently used in gymnasiums and public squares. Curved excedrae in public squares were favorite gathering spots for philosophers and teachers since their students could gather around conveniently placed seats. In private homes and gardens, excedrae were also used for entertaining and seating guests.

Excedrae soon found their way into Greek burial grounds that lined the highways into the city. Greek law exprerssly forbade burial within the city, so the highways leading into the city became important places for Greek families to erect highly visible monuments to proclaim the stature of the family and celebrate and honor their dead. The traditional Greek burial custom dictated that when a person died, a large mound was formed over the grave. Soon after, an earth or rock wall was built to better define the burial plot; when enough resources were available, a more permanent stone grave marker was erected.

Graveside services were not a one-time affair for the ancients Greeks; thus, from time to time, the friends and family of the deceased would gather again at the grave. These services were accompanied with wine, food, and offerings that, for convenience, were placed on top of the burial mound. When the family had enough money to erect a suitable monument, they usually picked a table tomb so they would have a place to put the libations and gifts. The next logical progression would be to erect a structure that would enable guests to sit and converse, which led to the introduction of the excedra in Greek burial grounds. The excedra was well suited to this seting: its three-sided or semicircular form helped to define the burial plot (it replaced the earth or rock retaining wall) and its built-in seating enabled all of the mourners to talk to each other while focusing on the tomb that, conveniently, was heaped with food and wine. This arrangement is not unlike a contemporary living room with a conversation pit and a coffee table in the middle.

When designing excedrae for American cemeteries, architects used semicircular, rectangular, and straight forms. Typically, a statue or architectural feature with a family name is at the center of the excedra and bench seats are on either side, although there are some examples that are simply a bench. The heyday of the excedra was from the late nineteenth century until the 1920s. They are still popular today, but are usually in public areas rather than as monuments for individuals or families.

Taken from Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography written and photographed by Douglas Keister, published by Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2004.