Friday, August 31, 2012

Anatomy of a Gravestone

 Monument eras can generally be identified by the material used, in addition to styles and decoration. Following are the most commonly used materials and their (approximate) periods, in the US:
1600-1650: Natural fieldstones or wooden markers, sometimes crudely lettered with minimal information; perhaps a name and date, perhaps just the date, sometimes with initials/date – often not marked at all. In the case of the Forefathers Burial Grounds in Chelmsford, MA (as is likely at many other places), most of the original pre-1655 grave stones ended up later serving as part of the surrounding boundary wall for the cemetery.

    1650-1900: Slate, Sandstone. Sandstone is very soft, and subject to much erosion. Slate is very hard, and many fine and perfectly legible stones still survive today., primarily in New England due to the Boston area providing a wealth of hard, beautiful slate.

    Early slate monument, 1775, MA -Taphophile

    1750-1930: Marble , Granite, Schist (a type of shale), rarely, soapstone.

Granite monument, 1871, MA; Taphophile

    1860-1930: Zinc; greyish metal with blue undertone; can age a bit like copper; verdigris with white.

 The following is a wonderful article from the Reed Digital Collections; author Laura Liebman:
Stone Shape
The shape of the stone can provide us with information about the ethnicity, religious denomination, and social status of the deceased. In early New England, three basic stone shapes were commonly used: vertical, horizontal, and obilesques. Each of these stone shapes has specific associations. During the late nineteenth-century, gravestones became more individualistic, and in some *garden cemeteries the gravestones were quite unique.
wunzie flat
Associations: Vertical stone with a curved top are associated with a curved doorway into the world to come. The side pillars (“borders”) were seen as analogous to the pillars in the third temple that harkened of the messianic era.
Typically used by: this is the most common shape used in colonial New England. In colonial Jewish cemeteries, they are associated with Ashkenazi Jews. In cemeteries that have a larger than usual proportion of horizontal stones, children are often given a disproportionate number of vertical stones.
Associations: Horizontal “ledger” stones mark individual as well as family tombs: beginning in the early 1700s, Protestants sometimes built underground tombs consisting of a brick burial room covered with earth and grass. Thus, the above-ground box structures covered by ledger stones mark the site of the tomb, rather than being the tomb itself (Wells & Wells 20).
Typically used by: Protestant ministers and their families, Sephardic Jews, adults, wealthy members of society who can afford more expensive stones. In Protestant cemeteries, it is not uncommon for this style of stone to mark the tomb of more than one individual.
Associations: Obilesques became popular in the nineteenth century and are associated with the Egyptian revival movement.
Typically used by: I know of no particular religious groups or ethnic groups that favor this style of stone. They are more common, however, among the upper classes. Presumably this is due to the cost of the monument.
During the later part of the nineteenth century, cemeteries were constructed as garden-like parks. Lavish amounts of money were spent creating individualistic monuments.
Typically used by:
Although fanciful monuments were easier for the upper-classes to afford, in cemeteries such as Lowell, there are elaborate monuments commemorating “the laboring classes” as well.

Elements of the Inscription
There are seven basic elements found on gravestone inscriptions: (1) Header, (2) Epithet [terms of praise or identifying labels], (3) Name, (4) Formulas of Death, (5) Date, (6) Eulogies [usually hopes for the person in the afterlife], and (7) Age. These elements do not appear on every stone, nor do they always appear in the same order. For example, children’s gravestones often have shorter inscriptions. If you are creating a seriation study, it is useful to identify which element of the inscription you want to track. For example, studies of colonial Protestant stones suggest that the header is the most important locale for understanding theological changes over time.

  Examples of each category (not exhaustive):
1. Header Here lies; Here lies the body; In the memory of; Sacred ; The remains of..; etc.
2. Epithet(s) Honored; Minister; Merchant; Esteemed; Esq[uire]; Daughter of..; Ornament; Faithful Relic of; Mason; etc.
3. Name Mr. Thomas Mayhew; Moses Lopez
4. Formula of Death Who departed from this life; Who fell victim to..; who died
5. Date May 23, 1786; 3 Nissan 5568; ye 2nd of June
6. Eulogies A Biblical verse; May his soul enjoy the glory; In God we trust
7. Age Age 3 months and 2 days; Aetatis 62

Identifying Key Symbols 
The images that appear on gravestone usually have stock associations. The most commonly used gravestone symbols appear on the lunette. These are the death's head, the cherub, and the willow & urn. Scholars have argued persuasively that the shift from the Calvinist “death’s head,” to the Arminian Cherub, to the Unitarian “Urn and Willow” reflect when and how individual communities made the transformation from Calvinism to more liberal forms of Christianity. The change in symbols on the lunette is often reflected in a change in the inscription's header from (1) "Here lies" to (2) "Here lies [buried] the body [corruptible, what was mortal] of" to (3) “in memory of.”
death's Head
willow & urn
Death's Head
Willow & Urn
The symbols used on the finials and borders are more diverse. Because images on gravestones are often stylized rather than realistically depicted, it is important to familiarize yourself with how objects are typically represented. Click here to see a gravestone glossary for Protestant cemeteries in New England.

*Garden cemeteries: Park-like cemeteries; the first in the US was Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Top Photo, (elements of a monument) - Taphophile
Eras & Materials text: Taphophile
All photos and text from Stone Shape, Examples, Elements & Identifying: Reed Digital Collections, Laura Liebman


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