Gravestone Girls tell stories from Mass. graves

Last modified: 6/8/2014 12:13:00 AM
The next time you pass by a cemetery, stop and look at the gravestones, because the dead are trying to tell you something and remind you that one day, you will also take the long dirt nap.

Gravestone Girls co-founder Brenda Sullivan is helping keep the dead alive. She, along with Gravestone Girls Maggie White and Melissa Anderson, travel all across New England preserving cemetery art and history and giving presentations.

The women create 3D art pieces using images carved on New England gravestones and give lectures on cemetery art, history and symbolism to entertain and educate about the historical perspective of old cemeteries.

Sullivan told those in attendance at a recent presentation at First Congregational Church in Princeton, Mass., that the dead from hundreds of years ago were trying to send the living a message with the art on their gravestones.

There are three major eras of gravestone and cemetery evolution, she said. New England has all three represented because it is the oldest part of the country – the Colonial, from the 1600-1700s; Victorian from the 1800s; and the modern from 1900-present. Sullivan told attendees she went to all of the cemeteries in Princeton in preparation for the presentation.

Initially, gravestones were very simple, she said, and fieldstones were used to mark graves. It was also common to bury the dead on your own property, she said. Many cemeteries started as family burial grounds, she said, on farmlands with roughly hewn stones for markers.

Later, people began using head and foot stones (which made it easy to tell the height of the person buried), she said, and epitaphs were added to send a message about mortality to whoever was reading it, she said.

The small footstones were later thrown out or moved because they “offended 19th-century sensibilities,” she said, and made it difficult for those caring for the cemetery to mow.

One of the common gravestone symbols of the 17th century was “death’s head,” a winged skull symbolic of a soul flying off into the next world, she said.

The winged skull was used to symbolize mortality, she said, and was meant to remind the living that no matter how small the sin, it counts against you.

“They were very literal and superstitious,” she said. “It was your job to keep your mortal soul clean and free of sin with the hopes of getting into heaven. The skull was a reminder that, ‘I’ve spent every day trying to live a good and virtuous life.’ ”

In the 1730s, settlers had already been in America for a hundred years and the young didn’t live in fear as their ancestors had, she said.

“They knew their maker had the final say, but they didn’t have to live in mortal terror of damnation,” Sullivan said.

The winged skull took on an angelic reference, she said.

“Prior to that it was sacrilegious,” she said. “But, modern people used it as an identity as being human and having souls in our modern terms. They were in no danger of being blasphemous.”

She provided those in attendance with a long list of gravestone symbols and their interpretations.

One example she gave was of a person looking out from a casket, as if to remind those who saw it, “You’re all going to get one,” she said.

During the time of the American Revolution, she said, the urn and willow motif became popular, symbolizing something living and something dead.

“They were not struggling to survive every moment of every day like their ancestors did and influences in the land of the living and dead changed,” she said.

In 1831, the term “cemetery” replaced burial ground with the creation of Mount Auburn Cemetery – the first rural garden established by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Cambridge. It was an oasis 4 miles outside of downtown Boston, and people flocked to see what it was all about, she said.

People were longing for a return to nature, she explained, during a time when authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were all writing about it and scientists were studying it.

“It was the idea that death is pleasant and it is going to happen, and it is not the terrible horror it was for people who came before,” Sullivan said. “Cemeteries had green grass, rolling hills, trees and elaborate monuments. It was not a bad place to spend eternity waiting for judgment day.

“It was inconvenient to die, but it was far worse not to be remembered,” she said.




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