- Historic Sites
Sermons in Stones
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Tears cannot restore her Therefore I weep.
Many women died in childbirth; stones for mother and babe are found throughout New England, dating from the earliest times to the turn of the twentieth century. Childbed fever took a dreadful toll. Death approached in many disguises; one young lady “fell from a chaise,” and another, while “on a journey in pursuit of health, died suddenly of a Violent Hectick complaint.” Besides being exposed to the dangers of frontier life, women suffered more than their share of debilitating diseases, “consumption” prominent among them. A woman in Groton, Massachusetts, was “removed by a dysentery”; not far away a man “died of a bellyache.” A memorial slab on Plymouth’s Burial Hill tells how Bathsheba James was “Kill’d instantaneously in a Thunder storm by the Electrich fluid of Lightning.”
Children fared no better than their elders. From the numerous headstones marking the graves of infants one would assume that it was the fortunate child indeed who persisted to his majority. A typical sentiment states ruefully:
From Death’s arrest no age is free Young children too may die.
There was little protection against the communicative diseases of childhood, and often an epidemic wiped out an entire family overnight. How discouraging for William and Sarah Langley of Newport, Rhode Island, whose six children, three of them their mother’s namesakes, lost their tenuous holds on life, each before the grief for the last had been dispelled! They are commemorated on a multiple stone —six cherubs’ heads joined in a row, crowning their respective epitaphs and chiselled from a single slab of slate.
Untimely ends—the most ordinary seems to have been by drowning—were often symbolized by fallen blossoms and described in painful detail: for a young girl “By boiling cyder she was slain”; a boy “kicked in the head by a mule”; another “killed by a cart wheel passing over his head.” A most untoward fate was reserved for Jonathan Tute, aged fourteen, of Vernon, Vermont, who left this earthly sphere in 1763:
Behold the amazing alteration Effected by Inoculation The means Employed his Life to save Hurried Him Headlong to the Grave.
Stonecutters sometimes depicted the instruments of death in their carvings. Arrows, upturned boats, wagon wheels, axes, and fallen trees need no words to tell their stories. In Pepperell Center, Massachusetts, the startled figure of little Aaron Bowers, “Instantly killed by a Stock of boards,” remains forever transfixed with arms upraised as the timbers bear him down.
Yankees were of necessity jacks-of-all-trades, so that tombstone carving was not necessarily a full-time occupation. Many of these often anonymous artists were farmers, blacksmiths, cobblers, quarry owners, or even sailors, who picked up chisel and mallet as the occasion demanded. The few available records show that certain of them worked for very long periods—more than half a century in a few cases—and achieved a tremendous output. As untrained artists these men were seldom influenced by what the stonecutter in the next village was carving. It is interesting to note that the nature of the stone largely determined the style in which the image was carved. While the coarser marble and sandstones were ideal for the somewhat heavier designs, the smooth, close-grained slate permitted finer lines and more delicate carving. The cutters clung stubbornly to their individualism, each man employing his own motif in one form or another throughout his career.
So little significance was accorded gravestone carving during colonial times that it is exceptional even to find it mentioned among contemporary writers. Yet it recorded history in a very permanent way for a God-fearing, tough-minded people who shrank neither from duty nor death. These old New Englanders cultivated the simple virtues and pleasures and lived out their lives according to stern, unyielding principles. They believed in honesty and hard work, and they held steadfastly to the strength of their convictions. They endured and died secure in faith; that is the sermon in these stones.