New England graveyards have attracted me since I was a kid. They’re old and quiet, never crowded, and sometimes spooky. Usually they’re grassy fields on gently uneven ground, with weathered stone walls. There may be overgrown lilacs or an old hydrangea. The gravestones stand in ragged rows.
The old graveyard enjoys benign neglect. Towns lack money to do more than trim the grass, and Americans have too many distractions to visit these graves. The result is unique: a place that looks about the same in 2013 as it did in 1913, or 1813, or 1713. It’s not truly the same: we hear noise from cars, we see nearby lights, occasionally we find litter, and the stones have been moved for ease of mowing. Yet the old New England graveyard remains fundamentally un-modern, un-curated, and un-cluttered by contemporary culture, sort of an archeological find in plain sight, an open window to earlier time.
The Pilgrim colonization of New England began in 1620, at Plymouth, Massachusetts. We believe that their earliest graves were marked with wooden monuments, but none of these survive. Following the wooden markers, the dead were commemorated with engraved stones. The early stones simply announced a name, age, and date of death. Here is one from 1677, in Windsor, Connecticut:
This is one of the oldest stones I’ve found, extremely well preserved, and impressive in its execution. The stone is well shaped, the lettering is sharp and aligned, and it has a carefully chiseled border. In the same graveyard, there’s a stone of similar design, almost certainly the work of the same carver. Note shared details such as the floating dot above the letters “J” and “I,” and the colon used as punctuation between the date and year.
Forty miles up the Connecticut River, in Northampton, Massachusetts, we find the the same design. Although the carver of these stones is unknown, his work is among the most elegant of the early markers that have survived.
The grave below, from Ashford, Connecticut, is more typical of the materials and ability that marked early graves. The stone and lettering are rough, and the design is completely unadorned.
The Peter Chandler grave (below), in Pomfret, Connecticut, is well preserved. It shows typical rural craftsmanship, a rough stone with slightly uncertain lettering. Yet it also begins to introduce embellishment. The margins are marked by fine lines, including an unusual curved design. Working on the diagonal above the epitaph, the engraver has cautioned three centuries of passersby, “We are but dust, and die we must.”
An even more elemental embellishment is seen on the Nehemiah Dickinson grave (below), in Hadley, Massachusetts. The stone is decorated with a deep line at top. The same stark gash appears on several stones in central Massachusetts, probably the work of the same man.
It is an interesting mark, suggesting a horizon, the division of earth from the underworld, or the threshold between the living and dead. The stone shows other details: the age was re-chiseled, apparently a correction, the last two letters of “lieutenant” were placed above when the word proved too long, and the notice “Pioneer 1659” was added, probably long afterward by local historians.
This essay discusses some old stones, but unfortunately none of these is an example of the first Puritan gravestones, prior to 1650. These earliest markers were field stones (as opposed to the quarried, shaped stones pictured here), with superficial engravings that faded. They have been lost, probably buried in later graves, discarded, or mixed into the ubiquitous walls lining the graveyards.
These stones illustrate a humble beginning. The craft of gravestone carving ultimately blossomed into a novel American art form. Tune in for my next essay, which will look at the famous “death’s heads” that mark thousands of Puritan graves.
(All photos taken by the author.)