February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
The crumbling headstones of New England’s Puritan burying grounds honor the dead) warn the living, and promise a bright resurrection
Down the country road, behind the hilltop wall, hidden in the high grass near the white-spired church, not hard to find but rarely visited, lie the burying grounds of New England. No book, no building, no monument has quite their power to suggest the American past. For here, as the quick confront the dead almost face to face, so to speak, the years fall away, and over the abyss of change and lost belief the visitor senses the uncompromising faith, the appalling death rate, and the grim good humor with which this new Zion met life and death. Those given to macabre poetry, a crude, strong art form, and a sense of historical continuity will not find cemetery visiting in New England a dissatisfying experience. (In the Puritan presence, one shrinks from calling it a hobby.)
The ancient markers—all too often sinking, tilted, or broken—are gradually disappearing. Lichen and moss obscure the dimming letters. Of the earliest tombstones, from the ißoo’s, most have been shattered by the New England winters. And the eighteenth and nineteenth century markers are giving ground as well.
Apart from the natural breaking down of stone with time, the principal villain is seeping moisture, freezing and expanding. Some conscientious custodians protect damaged headstones in beds of concrete, or hammer lead sheaths over the edges. But in most cases the old stones simply split and drop their death’s-heads and epitaphs which warn so eloquently: “As I am now, so you must be …”
A visit to these graveyards is its own reward, quite in keeping with the spirit of the old Puritans and early New Englanders who loved nothing better than tribute and warning combined—two birds brought low with the same philosophical stone. Epitaph hunting not only arouses a strange affinity with the past; it also helps to deflate the ego.
The late Harriette Merrifield Forbes—mother of the distinguished novelist and historian Esther Forbes —was the nation’s leading investigator of old New England tombstones. She found none of the harsh starkness of death among them. The reason, she wrote, was that the “other-worldly Puritan accepted death with such passionate faith in a better world to come that we may believe that his fears were quieted. His sunny hillside burying-grounds with their carved stones remain … peaceful and blessed spots.”
The early markers are of fieldstone; freestone; syenite; greenstone (a porphyrilic stone also called beechbowlder); schist; marble; or a flinty slate that offered the most satisfactory smooth surface for the cutter’s chisel. Most stone came from the New England quarries, some of which were undercut as early as 1630.
Sometimes early tombstones essayed the primitive sculpture of laces, the likeness—oltcn the only one on earth—of the man beneath, and did it with no little skill. But the general rule is symbolism, cut with broad and obvious strokes. In an era when many were unable to read or write, the gap was bridged with pictures. The theory was simple: while honoring the dead, forewarn the living. Thus the hourglass, representing the sands of time running out, is carved into some of the earliest stones. Now and then it rests on its side —proof that time has stopped. The Grim Reaper with beard and scythe as well as hourglass is a dramatic find for patient investigators. Sometimes he brandishes the scythe for added emphasis.
Skeleton and skull, naturally, were the most universal symbols. They appear in a vast variety of form and shape, with and without wings, with and without crossbones, with and without coffin. Even here the softening of our religious fervor is apparent; the passage of one hundred years quite altered the expression of the death’s-heads. The eighteenth-century skulls ollered no evasion of death, but those of the nineteenth century are distinctly jocular by comparison.
The language of the gravestone, sometimes obscure to us, was clear enough to the Puritan. For a church that thought of itself as the Vineyard of the Lord, grapevines and their fruit were an obvious ornament. The frequent pomegranates, sometimes combined with a lew figs, speak of a heavenly Promised Land. Perhaps the least obvious symbol in the vocabulary of the Puritan necropolis, however, was the squirrel who sits clasping a nut; this patient animal symboli/es religious contemplation, a quality that a Mather or an Edwards could carry to lengths modern man can scarcely comprehend.
For the day of resurrection—the bright shaft of light in the encircling Puritan gloom—the stonecutter found dramatic symbols: pealing trumpets, rising suns, cherubim who whisper that earthly man shall be happier and more innocent in Kingdom Come.
The Boston burying grounds, because of their heritage, are the most famous. But, if one may be forgiven the pun, they have been browsed to death. Boston grew up around its cemeteries, and five are left in the teeming downtown area. Many people believe that more lamous historical personages known to more people lie in Old Granary than in any other American graveyard. Here, too, the sad old stones are disintegrating, their epitaphs blurring.
Rich epitaphic rewards lie in smaller and lesserknown cemeteries. The most frequent lines are:
In a Vernon, cemetery, a minister with the unlikly name of the Reverend Bunker Gay wrote an epitaph for the son of the thirs husband of Mrs. Jemima Tute, who survived Indian captivity and three husbands:
But somehow the visitor is not depressed. In a light, luminescent fog, !n the soft wash of a warm spring rain, the old churchyards achieve a quality that is singularly their own—a sense ol profound, eternal repose and exaltation of spirit. Death holds no terror here.