Gravestone Art and Symbolism in the Tri-Town

            The Mattapoisett Museum hosted a virtual presentation by the Gravestone Girls, experts in the field of deciphering not only the craved imagery of early gravestones but also burial practices of the past. And while this is the time of the year when cemeteries play to dark themes in a run-up to the Halloween celebration, cemeteries through history have largely been places to cherish and even to enjoy.

            Founding member Brenda Sullivan gave the October 8 presentation with an amazing command of the subject matter that was both entertaining and informative. In a word, brilliant.

            Calling the Pyramids of Egypt “giant gravestones,” Sullivan briefly talked about early belief systems, most of which included an intact resurrection requiring burial goods such as food, drink, clothing, and, oh yeah, and possibly a few servants to accompany the deceased as they ascended. As for the Egyptian rulers who were entombed in the Pyramids, they deemed themselves gods so it was only right that, in death, thought to be a transient state of being, they were worthy of heaps of gold, too. If you’ve ever seen Tut’s golden mask, you’d know of which I speak.

            Moving on, the primary focus of Sullivan’s presentation centered on burial practices and associated religious beliefs during the Colonial and Victorian eras and modern centuries. She toured Mattapoisett and used photographs from local graves to illustrate various points in her talk, making sure to say as a cautionary note that the viewer might recognize an ancestor’s gravestone so, “… please don’t be shocked.”

            Over the course of an hour, Sullivan brought local cemeteries to life, so to speak. She explained that in the 1600s strict religious themes ruled how burials were carried out, including the type of imagery that was carved into gravestones.

            “The head and feet of the deceased were arranged in an east-west orientation,” Sullivan explained. She said today when we look at old burial grounds, we are not seeing them as they would have been. “Headstone and footstones have been moved over the years to accommodate maintenance.” Inscriptions on stones would have been facing west and the body facing east. “Gabriel would be coming from the east,” she said of the early believers, “… so they had to be facing east when they sat up in their graves to fly away with him and go meet their maker.”

            Speaking to the gravestones from the early 1600s that still bear the image of a skull with wings, Sullivan said that the skull represented the immortal soul and the mortality of humans. “It depicted the idea that we are all mortal,” and therefore, “it was the humans’ job to behave well while alive.” Most people were unable to read, she pointed out, thus the cravings helped to drive home the doctrines taught by religious leaders. “Death was omnipresent.”

            By the 1700s, the winged-skull motifs were evolving into faces with flesh, but there were also images of the sun representing its setting caused by death, stars as guiding lights to heaven, and crowns for those considered righteous. There were also hourglasses marking the ebbing away of life on earth.

            Sullivan said that some of the gravestones from this period also showed a “wagging finger” that spoke to the need of being prepared for the end by doing the rights things while living. On a happier note, she said that the early settlers also believed that the grave was not the end, that death was not permanent, and that, “the grave was God’s hiding place while they waited for Gabriel – it was the promise of something more.”

            During the 1800s there was a revival of Greek and Roman decorative themes, Sullivan shared. “We’d had a revolution, people fought to govern themselves, there was a great deal of archeology taking place; neo-classical themes seeped into everything including 19th-century stones.” Urns and weeping willow trees replaced darker themes. These updated symbols became common gravestone images, and there was the rise of the garden cemetery where families could meet neighbors, have picnics, and remember their dearly departed.

            “People were moving into the cities from rural areas, they were working in factories, they were becoming the nouveau riche,” Sullivan said. These economic and societal shifts were part of the reason that cemeteries became gardens, not just simple burial grounds but “sleeping places.” These were the first green spaces Sullivan stated complete with flowering bushes and ponds. “When the Mt. Auburn Cemetery opened people flooded to it, it was a sensation,” she said.

            About this same time, family plots became popular with borders that were like foundations to rooms. These were social spaces. Softer symbols started to appear such as floral cravings. Marble was introduced for gravestones newly available with the advent of transportation systems. Marble, however, would prove a less-than-ideal material due to its porous structure. Today marble gravestones are stained black. “Use your mind’s eye as to how they would have looked when first placed at a grave,” Sullivan advised. Other favorite symbols of the Victorian era were shaking hands. “They are saying hello and goodbye …” anchors, birds and, for children, lambs.

            With money came the hill vaults and tombs. Sullivan said that the famous stained-glass maker Tiffany made windows for tombs, tombs that might even contain furniture for the visitors to use. But the Victorian period would also fade in time.

            “The modern period is different from other periods,” Sullivan began. She said there was a backlash against all things overdone. “We wanted to simplify.” Also during this time, the Arts and Crafts movement with its clean lines and uncluttered appearance came into vogue. But also changing was the way cemeteries were designed. Sullivan said that lawn cutting required straight rows of a given width and that people no longer went to gravesites to picnic and visit the deceased.

            Granite became the preferred material for gravestones. But today’s stones also provide a deeper look into the life of the deceased. Sullivan said that early gravestone gave little detail except for a person’s name, age and whether or not they were a wife, husband, or child. Today the gravestone tells so much more. Photography can now be etched into the stone’s surface and many stones also speak to the deceased interests such as golf, fishing, or dancing.

            Before Sullivan closed out her comments, she pointed out that in local cemeteries there are rather-unique gravestones made from zinc. These “stones” were called “white bronze” but were, in fact, made of zinc. They were a less expense headstone option between 1870 and the advent of World War I. Only one manufacturer in the entire country offered these cemetery markers that could be ordered from catalogs. The Monumental Bronze Company was located in Connecticut and did a thriving business until the US economy shifted to manufacturing military supplies for WWI. The company’s history also noted that the color of the metal, a cool blue-gray tone, was thought to be cold.

            Today there are examples of the zinc cemetery monuments in both Marion and Mattapoisett. They are very noticeable in older cemeteries because they are antimicrobial; lichen and moss will not grow on their surfaces. They gleam much as they did when first installed.

            Speaking of the aging and appearance of gravestones, Sullivan cautioned not to clean gravestone yourself. But if you do try, you should use soft brushes and lots of clean water. She also said that the organization Friends of the Middleborough Cemeteries understands the cleaning process and can be very helpful to those wishing to learn more.

            Sullivan said that some cities and towns have returned to using cemeteries as places for people to gather. She noted that yoga classes, beekeeping, dog parks, and road races raise money, in some cases monies that are used to maintain the cemetery. If you missed the Gravestone Girls presentation, you can watch it on YouTube (search for Mattapoisett Museum Gravestone Girls).

            A quick count of the number of cemeteries in the Tri-Town area came out to 17, but I am sure there are others hidden deep in pine forests or along the edge of sub-divisions that I missed. Why not take a cemetery tour and see how many you can find?

By Marilou Newell

Leave A Comment...