Prior posts in this series examined specific artists or icons (see, for example, here and here). Today’s essay looks at the headstones of children and mothers. Nearly every colonial burying ground holds many graves of the very young. Infant mortality during the Puritan and colonial era hovered around ten percent. Another ten or fifteen percent died by age ten, and a further five percent died before age twenty-one. An average family had about eight children and lost two or three.
Thus, we find many graves like the monument to Saybel Allen, who died in 1768, “Aged 1 Year Lacking 1 Day:”
Five years earlier, the same parents lost a four-month infant, Ephriam:
Young life was precarious, “like as a bubble or the brittle glass,” in the words of the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. The great enemy was infection, whether in form of small pox, seasonal “throat distemper,” or innumerable nameless fevers. Often we see evidence of fatal contagion in multiple deaths within close proximity. Mary and Joseph Lynds, ages four and one, died within a week in 1778:
Household infection likely claimed two of the three children below—Jeremiah, age eleven months, and Molly, eight years—who died within four days in 1756. They joined a four-year old sibling who died in 1750:
Many children were lost in the first hours and days of life, from birth complications, congenital disease, prematurity, or inability to nurse. Twins, who tend to be born earlier, were especially susceptible. James Eager died the day after birth; his twin brother Joseph followed three days later:
The Weston twins, sadly named for their fate, both died within three weeks of birth:
The danger of infant mortality was horribly compounded by risks to the mother from childbirth. Bleeding, infection, and pre-eclampsia led to maternal death in perhaps one of every thirty births. Nearly twenty percent of adult female deaths occurred from childbirth. Mother and child often died within days, as happened to Betty Lane and her newborn twins:
Life and death could horribly focus at the hour of birth. The 1780 grave of Salla Barnes, in Somers, Connecticut, admonishes, “Remember friends, the solemn hour / I was a Mother and a Tomb / In Dreadful pains a Corpse I bore / And soon a Corpse myself became.” Given the risks, pregnant women must have mingled expectation with dread.
The exceptional intensity of such emotion and loss is reflected in several unique gravestones, which departed from the ubiquitous death’s head motif. The grim monument to Mary Harvey, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, is one example:
The 1770 grave of Martha Green and her infant features very unusual sculptural rendering:
The grave of Rebecca Park, in Grafton, Vermont, is unique both in design and in the mortality it encompasses. Rebecca Park died in 1803, at age forty. She was predeceased by one named child, Thomas, and astonishingly, by thirteen unnamed infants. She and her children were buried together, beneath an engraved vine bearing thirteen mute effigies:
These infant deaths may have occurred from Rh disease, a blood incompatibility between mother and child. At the time, of course, the cause was a mystery. The back of the stone was also engraved—another uncommon aspect of this monument—again emphasizing the enormous mortality:
Death did not simply surround the Puritans and colonists, like an external menace of the dark wilderness. Rather, death was intrinsic to the fabric of hearth and home. Parents expected to lose children, and every child lost siblings or playmates. A husband could not be surprised to lose his wife in childbirth, and a woman could not become pregnant without fearing her own death.
This must have created deep instability—emotional, familial, and psychological instability—and ultimately an instability and loneliness of the self. The Salla Barnes gravestone distills the tension to its core: “I was a Mother and a Tomb.” A common graveyard verse, found in nearly every colonial burying ground, states the matter more calmly: “Christian reader cast an eye / As you are now, so once was I / As I am now, so you shall be / Prepare for Death and follow me.”
All pictures taken by the author. Studies of mortality can be found in John Demos, A Little Commonweath, and David Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death. If you enjoy these posts, please consider subscribing; scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow this Blog.’