Halloween is nearly upon us!  There can be no place more haunted, more full of ghosts and ghouls, than an old burying ground!  Let us go then, back to the cemetery, and (quoting Shakespeare) “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, of epitaphs!”


We’ll look at the work of a craftsman known as “The Stone Cutter at Boston.”  The Stone Cutter was among the earliest skilled Puritan engravers, active for several decades beginning in the 1650s.  Yet unlike others who signed their work or are named in receipts or letters, his identity is a mystery.

The title “Stone Cutter at Boston” stems from a 1672 document, regarding the grave of the Reverend Zachariah Symmes: “It is ordered that the three deacons conclude with the stone cutter at Boston for a meet stone. . . and that John Goodwin or Sam Bickner or some other mason build a stone work over the grave as soon as the weather will permit.”  Evidently there were many masons but only one man competent to fashion a headstone, thus simply “the stone cutter at Boston.”


His mysterious identity is matched by his spooky stonework.  Consider the 1678 grave of Joseph Tapping, pictured above.  The massive stone heaps upward in scrolls that resemble waves in a tossed sea.  A leafy fringe seems to rustle, while the large insistent death’s head stares impassively.  Life’s hourglass sits beside two Latin admonitions: Fugit hora (The hour flies), and Memento mori (Remember that you will die).  Click on the image below for a magnified view; that is, if you dare.


The main body of the stone, seen below, bears another ominous image.  A winged figure of Time holds life’s hourglass and wrestles to stay the hand of Death.  The reaping scythe rests behind, while Death doffs his victim’s candle.  Again, a Latin injunction: Tempus erit (The time will come).  The bold-hearted may click for a magnified view.


The Stone Cutter adopted this image from an illustrated collection of lessons entitled Hieroglyphikes of the Life of Man, published in 1638 by the English poet Francis Quarles.  The book was well-known.  Quarles depicted a greedy Death, urging Time forward: “Time, shake thy slow-paced sand. . . Thy glass exceeds her hour. . . My patent gives me power, to strike the peasant’s thatch and shake the princely tower.”


Although he borrowed from Quarles, the Stone Cutter’s work was innovative.  He was perhaps the first to carve images on American graves.  Earlier gravestones had only brief epitaphs with no adornment (see, for example, here), avoiding imagery in accordance with the Puritans’ iconoclastic heritage.  Thus the Stone Cutter’s work represented a major artistic advance.  The death’s head would remain a central design motif for nearly two centuries.  Depictions of Death and Time, however, appeared only rarely.  Here is another rendering, also by the Stone Cutter, on the 1681 grave of John Foster.


And here is a final version, from the grave of Samuel Greenleaf, c 1750, by an unknown carver.  Death boldly snatches life’s hour glass.  The intricate carving is faint; click for a magnified view.


In the mid-1600s, Andrew Marvell wrote a love poem and created the famous admonition: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”  Slightly over two centuries later, Emily Dickinson broached the same sentiment, more morbidly: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / The Carriage held but just Ourselves / And Immortality.”  The Stone Cutter may have known Marvell’s poem, and he surely would have smiled at Dickinson’s verse.  And Dickinson, a Massachusetts resident, could easily see the Stone Cutter’s work in the commonwealth’s old cemeteries.

Perhaps somewhere now, beyond man’s slender hourglass, these three together are perfecting their artistic meditations on Time and Death.  Morbid speculations and spooky gravestones, perfect for a haunted Halloween!


All pictures taken by the author.  Some prior gravestone posts can be seen here, here, here, and here.  If you enjoy these essays, please subscribe.  Just scroll to the bottom and click ‘Follow this Blog.’

4 thoughts on “New England Graves: The Stone Cutter.

  1. Loved the New England gravestone-cutter. I’m currently working on a book in which Scottish gravestones that use Quarles’s emblems feature. These include Alloway Churchyard, Ayrshire, gravestone of Agnes Meler, †1741 with the same emblem as the Tapping gravestone. What’s the likelihood of the Boston stonecarver being a Scottish immigrant? I have some good pictures of the Scottish gravestones. Who owns copyright on your super New England gravestones photos? I could use a couple in my book.

  2. Pingback: New England Graves: Phipps Street Burying Ground. | An Armchair Academic.

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