Skip to main content

Graven Images

April 2024
9min read

Sermons in Stones

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:

Behold and see as you pass by As you are now, so once was I; As I am now, so you will beÔ Prepare for Death and follow me.

During the Victorian era it was a popular pastime to stroll among the rows of lichen-covered stones deciphering epitaphs and copying off choice selections. Such collections were sometimes published in small editions for distribution among one’s friends and relatives, thereby preserving much that has since been lost through neglect and vandalism. Epitaphs of the famous were most sought after, but it was the rare anthology that did not include at least one account of someone’s strange or sudden demise, like that of Amasa Brainard, Jr., shown in our rubbing on page 19.

Much of the humor traditionally associated with New England cemeteries was unintentional. Since spelling had not yet been standardized, many unschooled stonecutters figured out their words phonetically. But these flawed messages, in spite of inconsistencies even in their misspellings, were usually direct and clear enough to those who first read them. It was not until later that aspiring sophisticates began to look upon such epitaphs as quaint. The gravestone for Marcy Halle in Glastonbury, Connecticut, who “decesed August the 21th, 1719, Aged 38 Years,” epitomized this comedy of errors with a tortured bit of verse:

Here Lies one who os life s thrads Cut a sunder She was strucke dead by a clap of thundr

On a gravestone in Holyoke, Massachusetts, one can read that

Mr. Nathl Parks Who on 21st of March 1794 being out a hunting & Concealed in a ditch was Casually shot by Mr. Luther Frink

This was not, as a modern reader might think, a deliberate act of callousness. In modern times the word casual has come generally to mean “unconcerned,” “offhand,” or “careless,” but its common meaning in those days was “accidental” or “unexpected.”

A rather famous stone is that of Lieutenant Mehuman Hinsdell of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who died in 1736. Part of its text reads:

… first male child born in this place and was twice captivated by the Indian salvages.

Salvage for savage appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as archaic, captivate for capture as obsolete. And the laughter thus dies down.

“My glass is run” was an expression quite common in the days when time was reckoned by hourglasses, and a life’s brief span ended in the allegorical sense much as the sands in a glass were run. On at least two gravestones, those of James Ewins, 1781, of East Derry, New Hampshire, and Ebenezer Tinney, 1813, in Grafton, Vermont, an additional curvilinear cut extended the n to an m and therefore radically changed the implication.

One startling inscription included in many collections is, “Lord, she is thin.” One can only speculate why the final e was dropped—forgetfulness, lack of space, or an attempted phonetic spelling; perhaps it was merely truth.

Epitaphs were often blunt in their accusations, and a visitor to an old cemetery might not be surprised to read that someone had been “Killed by unskilled Dr.” or a woman was “Talked to death by friends.” (It still happens.) Confirmed bachelors in Plymouth, Massachusetts, may well have thought that James Jordan, who “Drowned in Smelt Pond,” had been spared a fate worse than death when he was “Buried on the day he was to have been Married.” A stone in Providence, Rhode Island, tells a similar story:

Sidney Snyder, 1823 age 20 The wedding day decided was The wedding wine provided; But ere the day did come along He’d drunk it up and died, did. Ah Sidney! Ah Sidney!

In Bradford, Massachusetts, a monument was erected to the memory of Nathaniel Thurston, who finally met his match in i8ll, aged fifty-six. In a row beside him stand six slate stones commemorating six of his seven wives.

According to a stone in New Haven, Connecticut, things were less harmonious for some husbands than others:

Here lies the body of Obadiah Wilkinson And Ruth, his wife
“Their warfare is accomplished”

Somehow, as could be expected, women continued to have the last word, even in death. In Burlington, Vermont, one learns:

She lived with her husband fifty years And died in a confident hope of a better life.

Still another relict composed this possibly ambiguous tribute:

Stranger, call this not a place of fear and gloom To me it is a pleasant spot—it is my husband’s tomb.

In 1880 a stonecutter took enough pride in his work to advertise it on his spouse’s gravestone:

Here lies Jane Smith, wife of Thomas Smith, marble cutter. This monument was erected by her husband as a tribute to her memory and a specimen of his work. Monuments of the same style 350 dollars.

But an enterprising young widow had already gone him one better on a stone reported from Lincoln, Maine:

Sacred to the Memory of Mr. Jared Bates who Died Aug. the 6th 1800. His widow aged 24 who mourns as one who can be comforted lives at 7 Elm street this village and possesses every qualification for a good Wife.

Over the years when it was fashionable to relate the manner in which a person left this world, some strange and ironic accounts were chiselled onto stone. There is a strong colonial imprint on epitaphs that tell of men killed by Indian arrows or whales; or “instantly killed by a stagecoach passing over him”; or “by the accidental discharge of a cannon…; or “Casually Drowned in the Proud Waters of the Scungamug River.” As remote in thought as in time is the ghastly story engraved on a a stone in Montague, Massachusetts:

In Memory of Mr. Elijah Bardwell who died Janry 26th 1786 in ye 27th Year of his Age having but a few days surviv’d ye fatal Night when he was flung from his Horse & drawn by ye Stirrup 26 rods along ye path as appear’d by ye place where his hat was found & where he had Spent ye whole following severe cold night treading ye Snow in a small circle

Common ailments were everywhere, enough of them fatal to keep the stonecutters busy. Fevers carried off young and old alike. Men died gloriously as soldiers fighting Indian battles and in the War for Independence. But they also died of occupational hazards.

One man was “exploded in a powder mill,” and another was “Casually Killed by his Wagon”; sailors were “Lost at Sea”; men tumbled from heights; and one “at a barn raising fell down from the roof.” Still another dared temptation: “that Cherry Tree of luscious fruit beguiled him too high. A branch did break and down he fell and broke his neck.”

With the coming of industrialism the mills provided a catchall of unusual accidents:

Solomon Towslee Jr Who was kill’d in Pownal Vt. July 15, 1846, while repairing to Grind a sithe on a stone atach’d to the Gearing in the Woollen Factory, he was entangled, his death was sudden & awful.

A philosophical stone in Harvard, Massachusetts, cites the mysterious machinations of fate:

In memory of Capt. Thomas Stetson Who was killed by the fall of a tree Nov. 28 1820 AE. 68 Nearly 30 years he was master of a vessel and left that employment at the age of 48 for the less hazardous one of cultivating his farm. Man is never secure from the arrest of death.

The accusing finger stabbed at some ad man after a young lady “was fatally Burned. … by the explosion of a lamp Filled with R. F. Danforth’s Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.”

Women gentled America’s rugged frontiers, and when a man’s beloved helpmate “exchanged worlds,” only the purest and most heartfelt sentiments were directed to her gravestone. A widower’s honest tribute stated simply: “She was more than I expected.” But there were exceptions, of course, and if the oft-quoted stone actually exists, a truly vindictive husband finally got his revenge:

Here lies my wife A Slattern and Shrew If I said I missed her I should lie here, too!

Another’s intention may have been nobler, but the words on a Keene, New Hampshire, monument arouse doubts:

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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.