Field Guide to Early American Gravestones in New England

It is believed that Halloween originated from the Festival of Samhain, an ancient Celtic celebration that was held each year near November first.  It is an end of summer festival marking the beginning of the long dark winter, and could run for two nights and three days.  It was also thought to be the time when the curtain between this world and the afterlife was the thinnest.  When good and bad spirits could slip in and out.  So what better time to visit an old graveyard, but in October, teasingly close to that dangerous night of All Hallow’s Eve!

I have always enjoyed exploring old cemeteries from an artist’s point of view.  I am drawn to bold and fun commercial art, and that to me is exactly what gravestones are.  They are signposts advertising who is buried there, and the very old ones have a real flair for it.

My first photo of an early gravestone.

Let’s take a stroll on a nice crisp October day into a few of these graveyards.

 Old Graveyards: How to Find Them:

The Where:

You could fight traffic and head into Boston to check out the “Granary Burying Ground” that dates from 1660.  You really don’t need to do that.  Any New England town that was founded in the 1600s to 1700’s will do, and there are many off the beaten path to be discovered.  For me, the quieter a cemetery is while you explore it, the better.

Once you locate your older town, look for the historic center of it. Many believe old New England graveyards must be next to old New England churches. Not always true.

The Puritans and the early colonists of New England shunned away from all fancy and complicated church rituals when they came to America, and that included their funeral rituals. They decided to make their funerals civil in nature, from start to finish. Even the choices of where to bury their loved ones was far from church properties, either in a town designated spot, or their own property. One of my favorite old cemeteries is next to a library and the others are on the edge of the town borders.

Once you locate your older town and the cemetery, how do you know where to look for the old stones?

Get a lay of the land. Look for the section that doesn’t have tidy rows and the stones appear thinner, and tend to be sunken or leaning to one side.  That is the section you want to head to.  Now be careful, the ground may appear spongy and uneven, another telltale sign of age, and a good creepy factor.

As you step between the old stones, remember this is where someone’s loved ones were buried. The gravestones point out the people who could afford them, but there are just as many who could not who are also buried there tucked between the stones. Please be respectful not to disturb anything above (or below).

How do you know you have found the older gravestones?  Of course the date on it can be a dead give away, but often the ravishes of time and harsh New England winters can fade away such details.  I will offer you some tips that you can use in any graveyard to help you date headstones and amaze your friends!

Really Cool Old Gravestones and How to Spot Them:

General appearances of older Gravestones:

The stone itself:

Early New England gravestones are made of slate and sandstone. Slate is darker and thinner. Most of the real old gravestones are made of it. They can be shades of gray to black (like above) to a blue black in color. Sandstone has a unique coloring: light tan to interesting shades of brown.

How do you apply this knowledge? First off it will save you time when you are driving around and spot which might be an old cemetery. Not only will you look for those leaning over stones but now you can pick them out by their color and decide if you want to stop and get a closer look or not.

The Placement of the Stones:

Happen to have a compass handy?  As you approach the section where the old graves are, note they all may be arranged in a certain direction. Check to see if the side of the gravestone with the writing on it faces west.  Now peek behind the stone.  That is where the head of the body was buried so it is facing east. Why east?  That is where dawn happens and the religious of that time believed dawn will be the beginning of Judgment Day.  Imagine a body rising up to face the glow of morning light. Wait, rising up?  Sounds like someone coming out of a bed.

The bed symbolism, or “Here lyes the body of…” continues with the shape of the headstone. They made them to look like a bed’s headboard, and if it still exists, you may find a much smaller footstone behind it with the writing facing east to complete the bed look. Often the footstone will have just the person’s name, or initials on it. Many use to believe it was the marker for a child or infant.

If you have a hard time envisioning that concept, here is an example of an 1800s grave that outlines the “bed” complete with head and foot stone.

Gravestones: How to Read Them:

On to the artwork: Here is the fun part!

If you are familiar with the history of the Puritans and early Americans, they kept their houses of worship free of symbols or re-creations of all that could be found in heaven. Visit a New England Congregational church and you will find their sanctuaries pretty stark and simple, similar to what the meetinghouses back then would have looked like. Yet, when these people died, they adorned their headstones with some rather odd and involved symbols.

With all aspects of the funeral and burial made into civil ceremonies, they were able to decorate their gravestones as they pleased, and they went to the extreme using hollow eyed skulls, coffins, demon looking creatures, and geometric designs. Their favorite motto for gravestones is Memento mori which means “Remember you have to die!” Other sayings were “Prepare be to Follow Me” and “Death Parts United Hearts”

The gravestones of the 1600s and early 1700s have a rounded area at the top of the gravestones known as the tympanum. There you will find a skeleton face, called the “Death Head”. Many historians feel that scary face is due to the Puritan’s harsh beliefs. Death of the flesh was not pretty, and it was scary, and don’t you forget it! Thankfully once you pass through that terrible phase, they believed they would be rewarded with life in heaven.

To me the Death Head is a perfect graphic art design. It definitely grabs your attention. Even in modern times it is still being used. Think of the Marvel Comics character “The Punisher” and his symbol.

Salem, MA

Though, I can’t help but think about those left behind coming to visit the grave and seeing that frightful image! How can you think of your sweet loved one with those nasty hollow eyes staring at you? Doesn’t that make you wonder that the symbol had to mean more? Could it be connected to old beliefs they may have grown up with back in Europe: how scary symbols scared off evil spirits? These superstitions could have been hard to completely shed when they embraced Christianity. They could have been just covering all their bases to protect their loved ones soul from evil! That might explain other symbols such as coffins, cross bones and devilish imps carrying arrows of death.    

Another reason I feel they fell back on old beliefs is because you also see pinwheels that can be found in old Celtic and Norse art. (You can also see those symbols in the old HEX signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch area). The rosettes go back to ancient Roman times.

You may also see reference to the “tree of life”. This is a Biblical symbol that originated with pagan beliefs. Though my favorite unexpected symbols are naked breasts possibly symbolizing how the soul will be nurtured like mother’s milk nurtures the infant. Other symbols are hearts, meaning triumphant over death.

For an in-depth discussion on the Puritan religion, symbols and for some great photo examples, check out the book by Allan I. Ludwig, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815, by Wesleyan University Press.

Scary to Nice

With time passing, their thoughts on death and the afterlife softened, and so did the symbols carved into the gravestones.

The skull began to morph into a more angelic look. A neck appears. The nasty toothy mouth becomes a less complicated mouth. The eyes go from wide apart and blank, to closer together, and eventually from empty sockets to having pupils. The hollow triangle nasal cavity also takes on the friendly appearance of a nose. The sharp edged wings begin to look more like angel wings.

Diagram provided by McAlt Studio

The Death Head has now become the soul effigy being carried off to heaven, often wearing a triumphant crown. This new and improved face reminds us of some modern cartoon drawings.

Here are some photo examples of the transition of the soul effigy design in the 1700s.

Knowing the evolution in style is very helpful when dating gravestones where the date has worn off.

You may see during the very early 1600s no symbols, just carved words into a rock like gravestone. Also in the 1600s you saw gravestones with no decorations at all.

Or maybe the symbols were broken off? In Ludwig’s book, he mentions how individuals in later years went back and chipped away symbols they thought were sacrilegious. Something sadly we see now going on in the world.

You may see both styles, the Death Head vs the Soul Effigy overlapping in certain areas of New England. I am sure like any belief system, change can be tough and can be slow.

What is That Old Gravestone Saying?

Spelling at that time was not standardized. People spelled words as they seemed to sound, or by how someone taught them. That is why you will see different spellings of key words, for example; lies or lyes or lyeth. “Here Lyeth ye Body of..”

Words might run together or be abbreviated. You may also see “I” may mean “J”, “f” may mean “S”, or a “V” for a “U”.  If you see a double letter, it may mean that letter is a capital letter. “Y” can be the same as “th”

Looking at this stone (nice example of a sandstone marker), we can now translate it.

Starting with the top: Me Mento Mori. The carver added a space. It should be Memento mori. This opening statement was very popular. As was mentioned earlier, it means-remember death!

Now we move onto the “who”. You can see little symbols above the lower case y. It is like a fancy short hand: Here lyes “the” Body of Mr. Joseph Camp WHO Departed May 20th Anno Dom 1750 in “the” 93rd Year of his Age.

Again the carver did a little shortening: Anno Dom is short for Anno Domini or AD.

Scroll back up and see if you can read some of the other gravestone in this article.

There were regional stone carvers and the more you investigate wording and design styles, you will start recognizing their work.  In Ludwig’s book mentioned in this article, he has gone to great lengths to track down the stone carvers and point out their styles. Some of the stones shown here are mentioned in his book.  Occasionally you will be able to see the stone carver’s initials in the bottom of the stones. Of course, the real treat is finding the most unusual looking stones where the carvers seemed to have a bit more fun with the art, like the “big hair” cherubs and the most unusual pointed top stones.

The descriptors of people also can be interesting: From the website by “Connecticut Gravestone Network”, they offer these additional tips; Mifs is Miss. Consort though it sounds kind of naughty only means the wife died before the husband making him a widower and he remained alone. And for the widow left alone, she could be called a Relict/Relick/Relect. They also point out you may see double dated years due to calendar changes in England.

It is not till the later 1700s and forward you find verse.  Those are great fun.  Take time to read them.  Though I don’t know if it is safe on Halloween to do so out loud!

How Old Was the Person When They Died?

The older the gravestone, you have to sharpen your math skills.  They give the date of their death and how old they were when that happened.  Now calculate back to find out what year they were born. Scroll up to the previous pictures and test that out.

Lasting Impressions:

When you visit these old cemeteries to discover this art form yourself, please do not touch the old stones. That means the practice of grave rubbings (placing paper on the face of the stone, then rubbing with charcoal or crayon to create an image) should be avoided. Please do not put flour or other substances on the lettering to make it stand out more as some websites suggest. These techniques will cause damage to the old stones.

The only way I want you to make a lasting imprint of the gravestones is with your camera. That in itself can be tricky. Often the graves are now under trees as old as they are and well shaded, or the stone is dark, so there is poor light cast on them.

Salem, MA

The website suggests using a large mirror to reflect light back onto the stone. Sorry, I have heard too many folktales and seen too many horror movies that deal with mirrors and death for me to try it out. My favorite is the Victorian era belief that you better cover the mirrors to prevent the deceased’s soul from getting trapped in it. Yikes, you don’t need to be taking any ghosts home with you! Try a flash with a soft light, or wait till the sun is just right in the sky to shine on the stones instead. Like those early Puritans, better to be safe than sorry!

There are Many Spooky Cemeteries in New England (and some are not even outdoors!)

When the city of New Haven, CT was young, they used the center of town as their burial ground starting in 1638. As time went by, it got a bit crowded so they decided to close it down in the early 1800s and open the Grove Street Cemetery. Did they move the bodies? Nope! Just the gravestones. They left several thousand bodies buried under what would become the new town green. They are still there. People walk over them everyday. Concerts and special events happen over them all the time.

Don’t believe me? The latest remains to “pop-up” were in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy knocked over a tree and exposed Colonial era human remains among its roots.

If you want to get a glimpse of what the old cemetery looked like, visit the Center Church on the Green which was founded in 1639. The 1812 version of the church was built over a portion of the burial ground and they preserved some of the graves and monuments. The basement crypt contains over a hundred identified remains, and close to 1000 that are unidentified. It is quite an interesting and odd little place, with some fine examples of early gravestone art.

In Conclusion:

Now that you have new knowledge on how to understand the earliest gravestones, scroll back up to the pictures and have a second look to pick out all the details. Fun, huh? Now go out and find yourself an old graveyard, take along a friend to amaze with all your new knowledge and have a hauntingly good time! If you find a real interesting grave marker, let us know.


If you would like to see more old and unique gravestone photos, please head over to the Maplewood Press Facebook page. Others will be soon uploaded onto our Pinterest site.

This article is copyright © Atwood/N.A.M. 2018, 2020. All content and images are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Please do not use in any form without request of author. Links to our articles, short quotes with credit, and associated links are allowed.

To keep your spooky and creepy Halloween going:

Find out how they planned and carried out Early American funerals.

How to Plan an Early American Funeral

I hope after reading this blog you are now curious to learn more about this subject. Here are some resources to check out;

Allan I. Ludwig, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815, by Wesleyan University Press.

For more information or how to visit:

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