- Historic Sites
Sermons in Stones
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Footnoting the history of our Puritan ancestors are the legends left on stone among the countless burying grounds of early New England. These gravestones with their poignant inscriptions and symbolic imagery possess an eloquence rarely matched in the annals of colonial literature. They speak directly to all who confront them, echoing the past and reminding us of the incredible hardships endured by those early pioneers. On their crumbling surfaces one can trace the history of our nation—its wars and epidemics; its religious and political attitudes; its changing fashions in art and rhetoric; and, above all, the moving accounts of personal tragedy that tried the souls of its people.
There is a great wealth of art and design in colonial burying grounds. One may still see on the weathered sandstone, slate, and marble slabs crowding close beside old meeting houses or standing aslant on desolate, windswept hills, the symbolic carvings that constitute our largest body of early American stone sculpture. It was here that the sacred and secular sentiments of our forefathers found expression at the hands of native stonecutters; they managed in the confines of their rigid society to convey an astonishing diversity of pictorial images, not only reflecting the attitudes of their time but also reaching beyond them in vision and originality.
These masters of mallet and chisel decorated their stones with winged death’s-heads and a variety of angels. They carved birds, flowers, and intricate geometric patterns. They tried their hands at portraiture. They imagined the fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven and recreated them in stone. They carved suns, skeletons, hourglasses, scythes, and all manner of symbolic objects. They inscribed their stones with enduring epitaphs that still measure the thoughts of a people, in bold, serviceable lettering that ranged from the crudest to the most highly sophisticated calligraphy. And then, incredibly, within a few short years, while at the height of their creative powers, they switched to a standardized urn-and-willowtree design and gave themselves over to its dull and endless repetition.
Cemetery browsing is particularly rewarding in New England, where generations of imaginative stone carvers have left a rich legacy of source material for historians, sociologists, genealogists, medical researchers, folklorists, and any number of people seeking clues to our past. A diligent student can trace movements of immigrating settlers or compile a catalogue of the strange and fascinating names imposed upon their progeny. Artists can derive pleasure and new inspiration from old designs. The calligraphier can find alphabets beyond his wildest dreams.
The early colonists generally followed English custom by placing their common burying grounds adjacent to their meeting houses, in full, ominous view of the worshippers. As the eighteenth century progressed, gravestones of influential men—deacons, doctors, merchants, sea captains, military figures, people of means and those who had earned the respect of their communities—became taller and more ornate. The best of them featured wordy inscriptions with whole histories carved in verse to complement the iconography that stood as the individual stonecutter’s stock in trade. There was a certain confirmation of status in having one’s good deeds and personal attributes recorded on stone for all to see and remember. A good example, with typically free style, appears on a stone in Farmington, Connecticut: Here Lieth Interr’d the Body of M r NOAH ANDRUSS: Graduated at yale College, A.D. 1777, & Departed this life of y 29th of May; 1780:3
young gentleman of good geniues, an accomplished Scholar, evangelical prea chur, amiable friend, & exhibited a bright example of y virtues, & graces of y Christian character.
Amidst continual references to noble qualities—words such as virtuous , charitable , dutiful —it is almost a relief to detect a discernible trend toward ostentatiousness among the members of this otherwise austere society. Even during their most trying times our ancestors could put aside their bereavement long enough to labor at outdoing a neighbor.
Gravestone verses reflected the feelings of the times—dire warnings to the living, Biblical quotations, and later, sentimental renderings extolling the virtues of the person entombed. One of the most common verses in use during colonial times was some variation of the familiar, “As you are now, so once was I,” which had appeared in England as early as 1376 on the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince. It was paraphrased throughout New England, a typical version being: