The last post examined the simplest Puritan gravestones, inscriptions that announced the dead without decoration or embellishment. This style of engraving endured for about 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 crude outline, the tenuous 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 stares 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 emphasizes death’s unblinking insistence.
Every Puritan graveyard holds a similar array of death’s heads, staring at us across three centuries. The symbol originated in Medieval Europe and was common in Elizabethan England, combining the graveyard’s corporeal decay with a hopeful image of the soul’s flight toward afterlife.
Alongside these notions, I suggest a further meaning. Like an ambiguous painting of a sun at the horizon, which may be rising or setting, the gravestone may show a departing soul, or as easily depict death’s visitation upon the living. Indeed, the Puritan engravers did nothing to show the glad release that might characterize a soul meeting salvation. Instead, the winged skulls seem to menace the grave, swooping, alighting from a nether realm. In the confines of a burying ground, where many stones stand in ragged collection, the death’s heads cluster like a flock of doom. The teeth are bared, as beasts of prey. There is greedy appetite, scavengers upon carrion.
This death’s head was something between a menace and a warning. The winged skull often appeared beside banners reading “Memento Mori” and “Fugit Hora.” (Latin injunctions meaning “Remember that you will die” and “Time flees.”) And throughout Puritan graveyards, we find the simple rhyme: “Christian reader, cast an eye / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you shall be / Prepare yourself to follow me.” The death’s head was one component of this allegorical admonition.
One key 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 expected to lose children, and every child suffered the death of playmates and siblings. The famous preacher Cotton Mather had fifteen children (and three wives): seven children died in infancy, one died before age three, and five others died in their teens or twenties. And beyond childhood, all people 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 its 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.
(All photos taken by the author; mortality statistics from David Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death. If you enjoy these essays, please subscribe.)