Cemeteries are meant to be visited. Some early cemeteries have been designed by early landscape architects to be a pleasurable environment replete with specimen trees, rambling paths wide enough for two to stroll arm in arm and that visitors may spend time away in a peaceful setting. Here in Central and nearby Western Massachusetts are many beautiful and historic burying grounds ready for an autumnal daylight visit. Although Halloween yard decorations show faux tombstones with skeletons to add to the fright of the Halloween night,the designs that were carved into the original tombstones by talented stone carvers show prevailing attitudes of the day and invite contemplation on the viewer’s part about their own mortality. Recently we visited the Old Deerfield Burying ground and the Princeton Burying Ground and saw many of the styles of early New England’s carvers’ artwork and want to share them with you.
The above stone is sometimes called a death’s head or a winged skull. Nothing speaks of the finality of death better than a skull or bones. The early New Englanders of Puritan descent often used this design in the 17th century. It was not considered a religious depiction. This stone is from the Old Burying Ground in Deerfield Massachusetts.
The next type of stone depicts a soul effigy and may even seem to be a portrait of the deceased in the hands of a skilled carver. There are many varieties of these which range from quite elaborate winged cherubs to abstractions. These were more prevalent in the 18th century. This stone is from the Princeton Massachusetts Burying Ground and is of a woman with a very serious look on her face and a valiant attempt by the stone carver to create her hair style.
With the advent of the 19th Century came the neoclassical period in which all things Grecian or Roman were popular. This is called an urn and willow design and the stone shown is located in the Princeton Burying Ground. The willow is an ancient mourning symbol. School girl artwork and needlework pieces of this time showcase the urn and willow and often a weeping female in Grecian style robes as mourning pieces for the family.
What I recently learned is that although there is a general shift from one style to the next, scholars believe that these stones don’t necessarily historically correlate with changing religious beliefs or philosophies. I also want to point out that carvers worked on stones and developed a recognizable style to the trained eye. Some stones are even “signed” by their carvers. These signatures were done near ground level and with the sinking of stones in the soil over hundreds of years, the signatures can no longer be discerned.
This last image is my most beloved stone from the Old Deerfield Burying Grounds. It is a beautiful modernistic (though 18th century) carving of a mother and her baby in the coffin which seems as though it is already in the ground from the perspective. Imagine the heartbreaking moment that must have been.
These stones want you to know about the people who are buried and to perhaps remember they were young or lived to a ripe old age or served in the Revolutionary War or helped to build a young America with their trades and children and hopes for the future. So please go visit and spend a few hours and let their stones whisper their stories to you.