What the Gravestones Said

On June 15, the Rochester Historical Society hosted retired educator and founding member of the Friends of the Middleborough Cemeteries Jeff Stevens, who has become something of a local expert on the topic of early American gravestone iconography. His talk was aptly titled The Story of Stones.

            Stevens started his talk at the very beginning when the colonists arrived. He said that we will never know where all the bodies are buried but that without a doubt they are buried everywhere in unmarked graves. He said that gravestones did not come into common use until the late 1600s. Before that time, simple wooden posts were placed at gravesites, many unmarked while others may have displayed the deceased’s name and date of death. Organic materials left to the ravages of Mother Nature didn’t last very long, he explained.

            Once formal grave markings came into use, slate was used. Stevens explained that the settlers were primarily Calvinists, whose beliefs were expressed by living a pious life. Stevens said Calvinists objected to religious art or iconography and whose members were referred to as “a good man” and women as “a good wife.” In spite of their austere clothing, homes and places of worship, Stevens said they “went wild” when carving headstones.

            The earliest symbols found on slate gravestones are skulls, bones or setting suns. Stevens said that while the early stone carvers did not leave behind instruction manuals on how to carve or even what to carve, the uniformity of imagery throughout New England speaks to a shared standard.

            As the decades went by and as religious beliefs evolved, gravestone images also changed. Replacing the simple and rather frightening carvings of skulls with hollowed eye sockets, mouth-openings that appeared to be screaming out and nearly absent noses, were more lifelike facial images. The carvers gave the skulls lips, eyes, noses and even hair, Stevens reported. Later still, the skulls were no longer featured but instead replaced by cherubs and angels. Death became a less horrifically represented event in human existence with the passage to the afterlife, if not hailed, at least far less darkly represented.

            Stevens noted that as people became more exposed to other cultures around the globe starting in the early 1800s, the art of Greece, Italy and even Egypt was incorporated into gravestone imagery. Urns, vines, weeping willows and rising suns, he believes depicting the resurrection, started to appear. He said that by the 1850s, there was far less iconography to be found on gravestones. He also said that the stones themselves changed from slate to marble and granite. At this point, Stevens suggested, “The stones stopped talking to us.”

            The position of bodies in graveyards was also discussed. Steven described how bodies were placed in graves so that when the “great awakening” came, the whole body would sit up before rising to heaven, facing east toward the holy lands.

            In concluding his presentation, Stevens offered the following titles for those interested in conducting further research into the gravestones of southeastern Massachusetts: “Early New England Gravestone Rubbing” by Edmund Vincent Gillon, Jr.; “The Masks of Orthodoxy – Folk Gravestones in Plymouth County” by Peter Benes; “Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them” by Harriette Merrifield Forbes” and “Old Cemeteries of Southeastern Massachusetts” by Charles M. Thatcher.

            Rounding out the presentation was Rochester Historical Society member Kathy Phinney, who shared best practices for cleaning gravestones. “First and foremost, get permission,” Phinney said. Cemetery rules and regulations, along with familial ties to gravestones, need to be taken into consideration before cleaning should take place.

            But the biggest cautionary statement Phinney made was, “Do not use household products.” She explained that many chemicals in cleaning products are far too harsh for stone, which is porous. She suggested a product called D2 Biological Solution and further cautioned not be scrub the stones’ surfaces.

A quick look at the internet on this subject also suggests taking into consideration local temperatures to ensure that water does not seep into the stone and freeze, causing cracking to occur.

By Marilou Newell

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