What started as a chance discovery of an old headstone in a corner of the MFA Boston morphed into an interest in cemeteries that I cultivated while photographing the cities and towns of Massachusetts. I gradually came to realize that you can see a lot of American cultural and art history expressed in the headstones of our cemeteries and burying grounds. (In fact, the whole idea of a cemetery as compared to a burying ground is interesting in itself.)
As my fascination grew, going to see local cemeteries became something that Lisa and I could do together on a whim. As I walked around with my pen and paper looking for names, Lisa would look at dates and ages and try to piece together family relationships. It’s been a while since I posted any of the more interesting names or headstones here. That’s about to change.
This headstone has it all: death with his scythe, cherubs, devils, crossed bones, an hourglass, scroll-work, the sun, and a snake eating its own tail to signify the unending cycle of life and death. See below for many more headstones.
Through this new crop of photographs, you can see similarities within regions and times, the effects of mass production, differing regional concepts of piety and sense of style . . . not to mention the role of wealth, the presence of master craftsmen, the concept of personhood, and so many other things.
Many markers are memorial stones—not actual headstones—and are often very simple. Many of the dead only got initials on their marker, if they had a stone at all. Some markers were added decades (even centuries) later, usually in a moment of civic pride.
The earliest remaining headstones with names and dates tend to be very ornate and were for extremely important clergy. There are vastly more 18th century headstones remaining, and they tend to be more simple. Unfortunately, machine-carved and die-cast stones signaled an enormous change in the interestingness of grave markers. By the late 19th century, everyone had a headstone, but most of them had no pictures at all. Almost 150 years after mass-production changed them, it’s interesting to see machine-etched pictures starting to return to stones in the late 20th century.
By touring cemeteries, you can see the transition from early Puritan to Georgian and Federal styles and themes. The macabre and religious iconography gave way to the secular and harmonious. In later stones, you can see hints of Transcendentalist sentiments (such as practicality and comity, symbolized in shaking hands) as well as the Second Great Awakening’s self-satisfied piety in skyward-pointing fingers exhorting you to look for the buried in Heaven. You can even occasionally see Art Nouveau and Art Deco stylings in New England.
Throughout the entirety of American grave markers, Bible verses or short secular poems appear. These usual implore the living not to mourn the dead but to seek to follow them into heaven. Indeed for a long time after the English first appeared in America in the early 17th century, images on headstones were one of the few acceptable forms of public art. Despite Biblical exhortations against the graven image, you can see the shape of a body in some of the early headstones. There are the shoulders; there is the round head. Eventually the skull gave way to the cherub and then to the fleshy human face.
Numerous themes appear in New England grave artwork, often combined together onto one stone:
- Skulls with crossed bones
- Skulls with wings
- Cherubs (or faces with wings)
- Faces and the “memento mori”
- Urns with trees
- Drapery, columns, arches, “false tombs” (This is a form of 18th/19th c. landscape art.)
- Scrollwork, vines, leaves
- Heraldry (Though this is usually very limited, very aristocratic, and very Tory.)
- Crosses, Jesus, Mary (These are almost uniformly Catholic.)
- Hands pointing toward heaven or shaking hands (These appeared during the Second Great Awakening.)
A tour through a single large cemetery is often a fascinating way to see the generational changes in American orthography, typography, diction, expression, language, and style.
- “ye” versus “the”
- The ligature “s” (as f)
- The change of year didn’t always happen on January 1st. For example, you’ll see 1691/2.
- In the mid-19th century there was the same crazy typographical mishmash that you might see in a typical newspaper.
You can also see the change in tooling and craftsmanship that made these markers.
- Hand cut on slate by a local craftsman, often with visible guidelines — Until about 1820.
- Hand cut on marble by someone on a more regional basis, probably by mail order — Starting in earnest around 1840, just in time for the Civil War and its massive carnage.
- Cast from moulds. If you tap them, you can tell they’re hollow, and you can see the seams where they’re joined — ca. 1840s-1850s.
- Mass produced by machine with automated cutting tools — from 1860 onward.
I hope you will look at these photographs and start to see some of what I’ve noticed over the years. And I hope that, as you encounter things I haven’t noticed, you’ll tell me what you see.
Click on any photograph to enlarge it. Click on the enlarged photograph to move to the next one in the series.