The last post examined the simplest Puritan gravestones, inscriptions that announced the dead without decoration or embellishment. This style of engraving endured for a little over a century, beginning soon after the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620. In these same years, however, stone carvers of artistic mind inaugurated a tradition of increasingly creative gravestones. The centerpiece of this style was a winged skull called the death’s head. Here is a primitive death’s head, from Little Compton, Rhode Island, in 1707:
The Little Compton skull is a bare outline with thinly-textured wings. It was the work of a rural carver. Compare it to the grave of Elizabeth Cutter, 1662, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (below). The Cutter skull has depth and weight; the wings are carefully feathered.
On the grave of Nathaniel Mather, 1688, in Salem, Massachusetts (below), the high-spread wings have a dynamic appearance, like a crow alighting on a branch or a rooster bristling its hackles. Translated from the Latin, the banner warns “Remember that you will die.”
And here is a grave in Malden, Massachusetts, from 1677. Note the hourglass and crossed bones, which commonly accompanied the death’s head.
On this 1713 stone in Boston, the hourglass is swept up in death’s flight:
This 1717 stone combines the death’s head, an hourglass, and two coffins. Wearing eyebrows and almost a mustache, the skull perches insistently:
On the grave of Samuel Wright, in Northampton, Massachusetts (below), the grinning death’s head wears a crown of victory. Death was commonly called “the king of terrors.”
Here is a massive example, on the 1670s grave of four children in Boston. The wings are finely detailed. The broad, foreboding skull seems to emphasize death’s unblinking insistence.
Every Puritan graveyard holds a similar array of death’s heads, staring across three centuries. Yet although the colonists left thousands of these monuments, nowhere in their voluminous letters, diaries, and sermons did they specifically discuss the meaning of the death’s head. We are left to wander the burying grounds and wonder.
The superficial meaning seems obvious. A skull alone reflects the physical reality of bodily decay in a graveyard. But a truly anatomic depiction of the skull was rare. Here is one example from Boston in 1769:
It was far more common for engravers to produce stylized renderings which, with the the addition of wings, became animated objects. Hovering or swooping over the grave, the winged skull suggests death’s visitation upon the living. The teeth are bared wide, like a beast of prey settling upon a carcass.
The teeth evoke a greedy appetite and a grinning approval of the carnage. Yet more than simply a frightful menace, the death’s head seems intended to warn to the living. The winged skull often appeared beside banners reading “Memento Mori” and “Fugit Hora.” (Latin injunctions meaning “Remember that you will die” and “Time flees.”) The result must have been—indeed still remains—an intensely powerful symbol:
One key in our attempt to understand the death’s head is to consider the facts of mortality for the Puritans. From their arrival in the New World in the miserable winter of 1620, when forty-five of the 102 Pilgrims died, death was their constant companion. Throughout the next 150 years, the mortality rate of children before their first birthday fluctuated around ten percent, with episodic spikes to thirty percent. The overall death rate prior to age ten was slightly above twenty-five percent. Every parent would expect to lose children, and every child would suffer the death of playmates and siblings. Almost every graveyard records the death of mothers in childbirth; often the mother and newborn perished together. The famous preacher Cotton Mather had fifteen children: seven died in infancy, one died before age three, and five others died in their teens or twenties. (Mather married three times; only his third wife survived him.) And beyond childhood, of course, all the colonists lay vulnerable to epidemic and famine. During a smallpox outbreak from 1677 to 1678, the city of Boston lost slightly more than twenty percent of the entire population. Death was everywhere.
It was a culture steeped in dying. Death’s ravages were always near. And so the death’s head sat upon ten thousand gravestones of New England. It perched like Poe’s raven, staring, sitting, never flitting, casting mocking shadows on the floor.
Tune in for my next essay, which will highlight a Puritan stone carver who enlivened the face of death. Please considering subscribing: scroll to the bottom and click “Follow this Blog.”
(All photos taken by the author; mortality statistics from David Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death.)