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 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!
THE ARTIFACT: An old photo of the gravestone taken when I was a teenager.
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.
Let’s take a stroll on a nice crisp October day into a few of these graveyards.
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 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, so 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 even before you get real close to them.
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General appearances of older Gravestones:
The stone itself:
Think back to your school days and geology lessons: Drawing a blank? Here is some help. Early New England gravestones are made of slate and sandstone. Slate is darker and thinner. Most of the real old stones are made of it. They can be shades of gray to black to a blue black in color. Sandstone has a unique coloring; light tan color to interesting shades of brown. How do you apply this knowledge? First off it will save you time when you look at a cemetery. Not only will you look for those leaning over stones, but you can pick them out by their color now.
Example of Sandstone:
Happen to have a compass handy? Check to see if the side of the gravestone with the writing on it faces west. Peek behind it. That is where the body was buried. 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. Take another look. Those early tombstones were shaped like headboards and if it still exists, you may find a much smaller footstone that faces east, giving the grave the appearance of a bed. As the headstones state, a body “lies” here.
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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 meeting houses back then would look like. Yet, when these people died, they adorned their headstones with some rather odd and involved symbols.
These symbols had to mean a great deal to the early Americans. There have been guesses, but no real first person account as to why they needed to have them on their gravestones. Was it mystical or magical thinking they could not give up? Or was it an art form that helped them through the loss of a loved one?
In the rounded area at the top of the oldest gravestones known as the tympanum , 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.
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 thst 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! 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, and remind me of the old HEX signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch area. The rosettes go back to ancient Roman times. You will also see reference to the “tree of life” which could be Biblical and goes back to 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’s 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.
With time passing, the thoughts on death and afterlife softened, and so did the symbols. 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 a friendly appearance of a nose. The sharp edged wings begin to look more like angel wings. The new and improved face reminds me of some modern cartoon drawings. The Death Head has now become the soul effigy being carried off to heaven, often wearing a triumphant crown.
Here are examples of that transition: The following stones are from the mid to late 1770s;
The evolution in style is very helpful for you in dating the stones. Very early 1600s there were no symbols, just carved words into a rock like gravestone. Also in the 1600s you saw gravestones with no decorations at all.
Or maybe they 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.
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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. Words might run together or be abbreviated.
Examples of the different stone carvers spelling styles can be seen. “Here Lyeth ye Body of..” 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”
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!
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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.
How do you capture the gravestone images?
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. The website ctgravestones.com 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!
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 and have a hauntingly good time! If you find a real interesting grave marker, let me know.
If you would like to see more of my gravestone photo collection, please head over to the Maplewood Press Facebook site. Click on the Logo Link!
Update: Since writing this article, there have been two follow-up articles;
Visiting Old New England Graveyards: Part Two: October 2016
How to Plan an Early American Funeral: October 2017
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.