The last posts explored many facets of dozens of different gravestones (see, for example, here and here). Today’s essay examines a single stone, the grave of Margarett Cumings. She died the second of June 1790, near Billerica, Massachusetts. She was fifty-four years old, wife of Henry Cumings, a local minister.
The light gray slate is carefully lettered. The text follows typical format, announcing name, date of death, and age, without adornment. The stone’s top, however, bears a unique design. Throughout New England, graves are decorated with thousands of winged skulls, cherubs, and varied “soul effigies,” yet here we see a trumpeting angel:
Trumpeters appear only rarely on Puritan gravestones, usually hidden amid peripheral details. This is the only known stone to portray a trumpeter so prominently, indeed the grave’s sole decoration. The angel leans earthward from a billowing cloud, or perhaps those are angelic wings, fluttering in profile. A closer view shows fine folk-art rendering of the hair, an eye, pursed lips, and fingers. The chisel strokes remain sharp after two and a quarter centuries:
Resurrection of the righteous dead, of course, was the central tenet of Puritan belief. The scene is taken from St. Paul’s writings to the Corinthians: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised.” I wonder if St. Paul’s twinkling eye accounts for the angel’s prominent, wide-eyed stare. A popular published sermon from the early 1700s expounded: “The dead shall be raised by the sound of the last trumpet. . . more loud and shrill than thunder, uttering these words, ‘Arise ye dead, and come to judgment.'” Look again at the engraving, now viewing the complete design:
The flowing banner completes a literal depiction of Puritan belief. Yet curiously, the lettering runs backwards, a perfectly chiseled mirror image of the sermon. Was this an error? Perhaps an inverted rendering of a drawing, from a page that had been turned over? This explanation invokes the “illiterate apprentice” that I considered in an earlier post (see here). Yet the engraving otherwise seems too crisp and polished to blame a clumsy apprentice.
The grave, I think, is not in error. The clever craftsman who created this unique design has literally carved a pronouncement to be read “from the other side.” The angelic trumpet blasts not for the poor, earth-bound living but rather the righteously departed dead. Following burial custom, Margarett Cumings’ body lay opposite the gravestone text, thus literally positioned to see the banner through the stone. Theologically, the engraving achieves a deeper statement, almost a riddle, whose message we can see and sense from our earthly station, yet never view with clarity.
This is indeed a most curious, clever gravestone.
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