Death and Dying in the 18th and 19th Centuries
by Susan McGowan
First, some questions to think about:
Why do historians find graveyards useful
How and why are modern cemeteries different
in appearance from the graveyards of the 18th and 19th centuries?
Why are the early graveyards so far from
Why do the early ones - those of the 18th
and 19th centuries - usually have fences?
Practically, what is the best time of
the day and of the year to photograph a graveyard?
And, what about the iconography? - those
images that "decorate" the stones?
We'll begin with the last question, because,
even though it contains the largest word, iconography, it is probably
the easiest question to answer. All of us know what icons are -
pictures that represent some meaning - a shortcut image to give
us a clue about meaning. Gravestone icons are just that. The carvings
represent thoughts, beliefs, fashion, personal preferences, not
to mention the skills - or the lack of skills - of the particular
carver. As you look at the stones themselves or the digital images
of the stones - you'll begin to see a time pattern, a logical sequence,
for the images. Just as the fashions in clothes, architecture, automobiles
change, so did and do the fashion in gravestones.
Early colonists did not call a place for the
dead a "cemetery" - a word that comes from the Greek and
means "a sleeping place." Instead they used the terms
"burying yard," "burying ground," "burying
place," "bone yard," and "graveyard." In
the Town records of Deerfield, Massachusetts, on March 5, 1703,
there is a mention of "clearing the Burying place." Usually
these graveyards were sited away from the meeting house, where people
attended worship, because Puritans did not believe that the dead
should be put in a church yard or in sacred ground, since the salvation
of the deceased was by no means certain. With their belief in predestination,
nothing could be done to influence one's fate after death. The body
had no significance after the soul had departed. The ground, therefore,
need not be sacred.
George Sheldon, in his History of Deerfield,
reminds us that the site of the Deerfield burying ground had been
also an Indian burying place - that eleven skeletons were found
"buried in the Indian manner
on their right sides with
head to the east facing the rising sun." It was common for
Natives people to use land overlooking meadows or rivers as burying
Throughout the 18th century, and probably long
after, New Englanders valued graveyards more as meadows than as
sacred places. Many of us find graveyards uncomfortable, or even
dreaded, places. As children we all have heard spooky stories associated
with the dead and with cemeteries - graverobbers, werewolves, bats,
vampires - but as we grow up and those images no longer give us
the shivers, what is it about those places that make us uneasy?
Probably it is death itself, with the graveyard
as a reminder more than anywhere else, of our short time on earth
and our own ultimate death.
Most early New Englanders lived each day in preparation
for death and judgment and they educated their children to do the
same. Graveyards were created, in part, as teaching devices - as
unmistakable reminders of the coming of death. To New England Puritans,
death was an opening into another world, through which one's soul
passed into eternity. The body, the corpse - was only a memento
mori (reminder or remembrance of death), a husk buried often without
graveside prayer. The graveyard was a part of day-to-day life, never
out of sight and never far from mind. They realized that the passing
of time and our own mortality are powerful influences on our lives.
Death was ever-present: think about this statistic from another
frontier settlement - Jamestown, Virginia....between December 1606,
when the first vessels of the Virginia Company left England, and
February 1625 - 7289 immigrants came to Virginia. 6040 of the 7289
died in that 19-year period. Death was neither unusual nor unexpected.
Early graveyards may have resembled meadows,
but they were not park-like. This was a time before people introduced
plantings into the landscape - they were more interested in clearing
the land, taming it of its wildness, than of planting shrubs and
flowers - so there were no "ornamental" plantings such
as you see around modern houses and in more modern cemeteries.
On March 6, 1720, the townsmen of Deerfield voted
"to have the burying place enclosed with a fence." The
purpose of enclosing the space with a fence was not only to satisfy
the need for tidiness and order, but also because burying yards
were seen as grazing land. This was efficient use of land for feeding
livestock, but also kept the grass cropped naturally, in the days
before lawnmowers. In 1730, the Town voted to "let [lease]
the Burying Ground for ten years" provided that "the Leasee
must maintain the fence and must not Feed it with Any Creatures
but Sheep and Calf." [** Can you see the wisdom of rules against
larger animals than sheep and calves?]
Throughout the 18th century, there was an increasing
desire to mark the place of burial and to make some memorial to
the deceased. In the first period of use of the Albany Road burying
yard - 1703-1720 - few stones survive, and of those that do, some
are backdated examples of later work. [make certain all understand
the concept of "backdated."] In the early days of the
settlement of Deerfield, after the burning and abandonment of the
town in King Philip's War of 1675-76, and the resettlement in 1682,
the town of Deerfield was an isolated cultural pocket. [**What kind
of people come to the frontier? Wealthy people? Or poor people?**]
Its people had few resources - neither cash, nor stones, nor the
artisans to carve them - and they were unlikely, at that time, to
import grave markers from Boston or from towns down the Connecticut
The earliest markers are plain, small, and with
little ornament - some of them may have been made of wood, perhaps
with the intent of a future replacement in stone. The markers served
not only to mark the site of burial but also to instruct the living
with the words and the iconography (the graven images or pictures.)
Often the messages, whether text or images, were
grim, particularly in the earliest years, reflecting the hardships
of the early life on the frontier. They were not, however, unrelievedly
gloomy and without hope. They were clearly loaded with warnings
- some with skulls and crossbones were the most obvious - but many
also evidenced signs and symbols of life - wings attached to skulls
implied a lifting up to heaven - and vines that are carved into
the edges of the stones suggest life....although there are those
who will interpret vines and flowers - like people and all other
living things - as symbols that flourish only for a short time before
they, too, die.
A change in the quality of ornament was seen
after a marriage of one Ebenezer Barnard of Deerfield to Elizabeth
Foster of Dorchester (Boston) in 1715. With this marriage a kinship
connection was established between a Deerfield family and a family
of gravestone carvers in Boston. The Fosters were well-established
as carvers in eastern Massachusetts and, in the coming years, they
sold at least 24 gray-green slate stones to families in Deerfield.
The lettering and the iconography on these Foster stones are similar
- same nose, teeth, and wing patterns.
The stones in the Deerfield graveyards are of
slate, sandstone, schist, and marble, and later of granite, polished
or unpolished. Slate is among the most durable of stones. The small
sediment allows for strong lettering and for detail. Granite and
schist have very large crystals so the lettering, by necessity,
must be more in block form, with fewer curls and swirls. One can
get fine details in marble, but the stone "sugars" over
time and the elements - rain, wind snow - blur it and after a while
the fine details are gone. Native sandstone is not not an enduring
material, either as a hearthstone, a doorstone, a foundation for
a building, or as a gravestone. Slate, however, can still be read
clearly after more than 200 years.
When the Rev. John Williams died in 1729, his
heirs purchased from Thomas Johnson I (1690-1761), of Middletown,
Connecticut, "2 pairs of gravestones to mark his grave and
that of Eunice." Reverend Williams's first wife, Eunice (Mather)
was killed on the march to Canada in February 1704. She died near
Greenfield and was buried in Deerfield, but without a permanent
Gravestones were ordinarily sold in pairs - a
headstone and a footstone - with the headstone larger and more ornately
carved than the more modest stone to mark the foot.
The Williams stones are made of sandstone - native
to Middletown, Connecticut, where the stonecutter did business -
and are ornamented with death's heads. There are 55 stones with
this early style iconography in the Albany Burying Yard, some in
sandstone and others in slate.
The death's head may appear grotesque to us in
the 21st century, but in 1729 it was not unusual; the head represented
the spirit, the two mouths enabled the spirit to speak, and the
nostrils permitted the spirit to breathe. The stones provided lessons
to be learned. They not only marked the place where the remains
of a body lay, but also proclaimed the freeing of the soul. That,
of course, was the most important outcome of death - that the soul
was now free to soar to heaven. The body itself was simply a housing
or a shell - and after death it could be laid to rest in the ground,
unconsecrated, unblessed ground.
The floral and vine decorations on many of the
stones can be seen in furniture and in architecture, particularly
doorways, in this time period.
Later in the 18th century, perhaps when life
was somewhat easier for the English colonists, the macabre skeleton
image, with its jack o'lantern features, gave way to more human-looking
faces with rounded cheeks, more humanistic eyes complete with eyeballs,
wreaths of curls surrounding their heads, and wings.
Sometimes these "angels" had wildly
flapping wings, narrow eyes, and heads crowned with masses of wavy
hair. Members of the Soule family of Barre, Massachusetts, were
stone cutters and were the first itinerant stone cutters to appear
More than 20 different carvers are represented
on the Albany Road Burying Ground. One of the local cutters was
Solomon Ashley, born 1754, to Reverend Jonathan and Dorothy Ashley.
Solomon Ashley and a man named John Locke (1752-1837) were partners
in the stonecutting trade. Their stones can be identified by three
motifs: 1) a six pointed star or rosette within a circle; 2) a simply-executed
angel with a few ringlets for hair and very plain, unfeathered wings;
3) by a long, narrow coffin with an occupant. By the time that Ashley
and Locke were in business, after the American Revolution, harder
stone material - marble, schist, granite - were in use and they
allowed for less fine detail.
After the American Revolution, symbols associated
with the neo-classical period began to be fashionable. These symbols,
borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome, began to flourish in architecture,
clothing, ceramics, silver, and even gravestones. Herculaneum and
Pompeii, ancient cities in Italy, long buried by the eruption of
Mt. Vesuvius, had been uncovered in the mid-eighteenth century and
the wall painting and architectural details of these domestic buildings
had already begun to influence design in Europe and in the British
Isles. But the new thinking was slower to take hold in this country.
Appearing in the late 1780s and continuing into the 19th century,
the designs included urns, swags, wreaths, and weeping willow trees.
These neo-classical motifs appear also on needlework
art created by the young women of the time. Mourning or memorial
art was offered in the newly-formed academies and needlework schools.
During the period following the death of George Washington in 1799
an unparalleled expression of grief swept the country. Mourning
pictures became the fashion and daughters and other family members
embroidered and painted these memorials in honor of their dearly
departed. Mourning embroideries became the most popular form of
schoolgirl needlework at many of the most fashionable academies
throughout the land. Indeed, it was fashion, much more than melancholy
which led to the overwhelming preference for mourning pieces.
The embroidered memorials were often executed
in silk threads on a silk ground. Not all of the memorials included
tombs, weeping willows and urns. Some took the form of coats of
arms, embroidered on a satin ground with silk threads and enhanced
by gold and silver threads. Other memorials included family registers
with the names of the married couple and their marriage date, followed
by the birth and death record of their children. Some were embroidered
and others were lettered on paper. Later, printed forms were available
for calligraphy and painted decoration. Records of family births
and deaths had long been kept in special pages in family Bibles,
but creating a record to put on the wall was a new idea.
In the graveyards, classical expression included
the most expensive stones, the table stones - flat table-like stones
supported by four or six columns, which were either plain or fluted.
Their cost was approximately five times the cost of a set of head
and foot stones. The table stones in the Deerfield burying yard
show major amounts of deterioration. They are all made of sandstone
and, because of the material and large flat surface exposed to the
elements; none of the decoration nor the lettering is legible today.
Damage to many of the stones has occurred during
the past 300 years. The weather is a major culprit - frost heaves
cause cracks, settling, and tipping. Trees cause problems as their
root systems expand. Some of the stones have toppled, perhaps nudged
too often by one of the grazing calves or sheep, or from a too shallow
original setting; some have been mended or even replaced. Vandals
have not been a problem.
The Albany Road Burying Yard was closed for burials
around 1800 when it was considered "full." Only members
of families who were already represented there could be added.
On March 3, 1800, the Town appointed a Committee
to view a place for a new burying Ground. They were able to buy,
for $12, a piece of Ground at the east end of Ebenezer Sexton's
homelot, and soon erected a "sufficient board Fence around
the same." This became known as the Laurel Hill Cemetery, which
is "the property of the Inhabitants of Deerfield." The
by-laws of the Deerfield Cemetery Association updated in 1967 state
that, since the land is the property of the people of Deerfield,
no deed for a lot can be given, but instead the Association shall
give a lease in perpetuum. The rental shall be $100 for residents
of the Town of Deerfield and $200 for non-residents. Such rental
shall include perpetual care. The Board of Directors of the Association
laid down some rules:
1.The above prices are for standard-size lots
- others to be established by the Board.
2.Trees, shrubs, etc. must be approved by the Board
3. No fences or railings around lots
4. No tombs
5. Right to place stones, monuments, memorials subject to approval
and further, that if any monument, effigy, or
any structure whatever or any inscription shall be determined by
the Board to be offensive or improper, that the Board shall have
the right to, and it shall be their duty to enter upon said lot
and remove the offensive or improper object or inscription, after
a conference with the lessee of the lot. [Discuss the difference
in the number of rules between the two burying yards and how it
reflects society in general.] Was society in general becoming more
complex? Does an increased population demand that more rules and
regulations be imposed upon the citizens of that society?
In the time of the colonial revival, beginning
in the 1870s¸ interest in beautifying public spaces began
to emerge. Rural cemeteries became picturesque gathering places
for family outings where people took delight in the sobering influences
of the presence of death. Aided by melancholy writers in the style
of Hawthorne and Poe and by the paeans to nature published by Thoreau
and William Cullen Bryant, the public created a popular culture
centered on the sentimentalization or "domestication"
of death and people were stirred by ruins or monuments set in a
place of nature.
As there were changes in the attention paid to
the landscaping of public spaces, like burying yards or the newly
designated cemeteries, there were also changes in the rituals attached
to dying. Before the Civil War, the care of the dead was largely
the domain of the deceased's family and neighbors. The corpse was
customarily laid out on a board that was draped with a sheet and
supported by chairs at either end. The body was washed, almost always
by a female member of the household, and wrapped in a sheet for
burial. A local carpenter or furniture maker (in Deerfield, the
coffin maker was a wheelright named John Death, until he changed
his last name to Dickinson), supplied a coffin, a simple pine box
with a lid. The undertaker, often the same carpenter or furniture
maker, or perhaps the owner of the local livery stable, took the
coffin to the house and placed the body inside. With the family
and friends gathered around, the minister performed the appropriate
religious rituals, and then the undertaker conveyed the coffin to
Around the time of the Civil War, embalming gained
wider use in order to preserve the corpses of the dead soldiers
whose families wanted them shipped back home, sometimes a considerable
distance. Embalming was not a new nor a mysterious art - its practice
dated back to ancient Egypt - but the Puritans regarded it as distasteful
and unnatural. This began to change with the death of Abraham Lincoln.
In order to make the long, slow journey by train from Washington,
D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's body had to be embalmed.
The marvelous effects of embalming were witnessed by the huge audience
that gathered along the train route of Lincoln's funeral procession.
His body was displayed, not in a simple pine box, but in an ornate
mahogany casket - now the more preferred term for coffin - with
silver-plated hardware and a silk-draped interior.
This set a new standard in the business of dying.
By the late-nineteenth century, caring for the dead had become a
business. Embalming, promoted as a public-health measure, now took
place in a funeral home rather than in the home of the deceased.
Casket-makers offered a variety of choices to an increasingly prosperous
public as undertakers banded together in 1882 to create the National
Funeral Directors Association.
When you walk through an old graveyard in your
hometown or in your travels, think about what has made it look the
way it does: attitudes toward death and attitudes towards beautification
of the landscape. Take note especially of the inscriptions on the
upright stones set in fence-enclosed spaces kept trimmed by young
livestock. The outdoor art and nature museums of the late nineteenth
century - Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston is a fine example - were
devoted to elaborate memorials to the past and to nature. Compare
and contrast them with the late twentieth-century's "burial
garden" with closely trimmed grass, ornamental plantings, and
artificial flowers, the markers an almost insignificant adjunct-
small, flat, uniform, and embedded for the ease of the mowing machines.
What is the message?
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