Happy Halloween!

My most favorite holiday, as you surely must be able to guess.

In honor of this day of terror, hauntings, and (yum) candy, I present to you this article from the Providence Journal on gravestones, which even includes an interview with Professor Robert Emlen, Brown University’s curator, and my current professor for the class “Gravestones and Burial Grounds”. What a perfect fit!

Sunday, October 31, 2004
LAURA MEADE KIRK Journal staff Writer

“As you pass by pray cast an eye
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Prepare for death and follow me”

There’s no better time than Halloween to plan a trip to your local cemetery. But forget about looking for ghosts and goblins, or even the tipped-over tombstones that supposedly mark the graves from which vampires escaped. If you really want to get frightened, read the epitaphs on some of the gravestones — especially those dating to the early 1700s.

How’s this for a blunt reminder of your fate, as seen on the tombstone of Ceesar Wheaton, who was buried in the North Burial Ground in Providence in 1780: “Look on my grave as you pass by and learn of me that you must die.” Or check out the symbols on these historic gravestones, where the carvings range from crude images of skulls and hourglasses that have run dry to ornate images of winged cherubs and doves and even heavenly scenes. Of course, there are also plenty of more mundane grave markers — especially those of the last century, which merely cite the person’s name, date of birth and date of death.

But the trend lately seems to be a shift back toward more decorative gravestones, like those of our ancestors from the Victorian age. Advances in technology have made it easier and less expensive to have everything from laser-engraved portraits of the deceased to favorite song lyrics and images of the person’s hobbies carved into the stone or an attached plaque.

There’s a lot more to a cemetery than a bunch of stone markers, said Pierre Morenon, an associate professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College, whose students study burial places. “Graveyards are just really interesting places.” But, he said, as with most people, “a lot of our students have never been in one before and have never looked at them this way.”

BEVERLY BETHUNE FINDS IT unfortunate that many people think cemeteries are creepy. Bethune, the epitaphs expert for the Association for Gravestone Studies in Greenfield, Mass., sees them as a treasure trove of information. Each gravestone, she said, is like “a little personal history book” that tells a story about the person buried there, but also about the community.
The size, shape, lettering and designs ultimately reflect cultural and societal changes, as well as changes in religious beliefs over time, she said. Mornon agreed. “When you look at tombstones, you look at how people . . . want the dead to be remembered. It often, I think, reveals a great deal about the how the larger society functions.” Some people, he said, placed great emphasis on titles, or military service. Others gave little regard to a woman’s family, identifying her primarily as the wife of someone else. Even the size of the tombstone varied — with women and children receiving much smaller grave markers than the men during the 1700s and 1800s. There’s even symbolism in the placement of graves and headstones, noted Larry Stanford, who leads cemetery and ghost tours in Newport that are especially popular this time of year. For example, the top of a hill in a graveyard was considered the choice location, perhaps since it was closer to heaven, so that’s where many of the wealthy are interred.

And many of the earliest graves in the Common Burying Ground on Farewell Street in Newport are laid out like beds, complete with two gravestones — the larger one at the head and a smaller one at the feet. Stanford said most of the bodies were laid out with the feet facing east because of the belief that Jesus Christ will rise again in the east. They wanted to be propped up in that direction so they’d be ready to rise from their graves and follow him.

But Robert Emlen, a professor of American civilization at Brown University who teaches a course on gravestones and burying grounds, said many of the headstones in the North Burial Ground in Providence face west, likely because of the early Christian belief that “on Judgment Day the sun will rise in the west.”
REGARDLESS OF THE DIRECTION of the stone, most gravestones from a particular era feature the same sorts of symbols and epitaphs, Emlen said. The Puritans, for example, had a very stark view of death and dying. Hence, their gravestones tended to refer to the person “buried” there and often were adorned with dark images of grinning skulls and grim epitaphs warning others of their imminent demise.

“It’s as if the dead are kind of pointing the finger at the living and saying, ‘Straighten up and live right,” Bethune said. “. . . They definitely believed that Hell was a possibility for people who had not lived well. So they wanted to remind you while you were still alive to straighten up.” That view of death softened over time, Bethune said. So by the mid-1800s, gravestones often said such things as, “asleep in heaven” or “gone but not forgotten.” For children, a common epitaph was, “budded on earth to bloom in heaven. The images adorning gravestones also changed, she noted, with skulls giving way to winged cherubs and more hopeful signs such as a willow tree, which represents resurrection, or a dove, which is a messenger from God. Some even featured crude portraits of the individuals buried there.

Many of the graves from the Victorian era also were more ornamental than their predecessors, and the designs on the gravestone are similar to designs found on furniture and artwork of that period, Emlen said.

And it’s interesting to watch how language and lettering changed, with many of the earliest gravestones including references to “ye” instead of “the” or using a lower case letter f instead of the letter s. The earliest residents also were juggling two calendars, the Gregorian and Julian, so if someone died during the crossover between 1722 and 1723 on the two calendars, the date on their gravestone would read 172 2/3. It’s all symbolic of the times, he said. “Every age has something interesting in it” when it comes to studying gravestones of different eras, Emlen said.

EPITAPHS ALSO RAN THE GAMUT, from standard phrases to tableaus recreating the person’s entire life or death. One gravestone in Newport reads Life how short. Eternity how long. Another, memorializing two infants who had died, reads: Sleep on sweet babes and take thy rest. He called thee home. He thought it best. Some can be pretty dire, Emlen said, noting one that reads: Old age being come her race ends when God’s fatal dart he sends. “That doesn’t sound very benevolent — your race is over when God sends the fatal dart? That sounds petty scary,” he said.

Others have a variety of detail. One in the North Burial Ground in Providence describes how Capt. Allin Brown was captured by a British ship in the harbor of Newport, where he was infected with the Small Pocks of which he died May 4th, 1778, in his 57th year of life. One spells out the drowning of 4-year-old Hope Brown in 1768, saying: This babe was drowned. Her infant prattle delighted her fine parents. Unknown, she left their house and unsuspected, she fell into a watery grave and went to God.

Another stone there, in memory of Obadiah Brown, who died in 1762, reads: Descendant of a good family, he had strong mental powers guided with exquisite judgment. (He) was honest, industrious, frugal, temperate, affable, benevolent. A grave magistrate, kind husband, tender parent, a perfect pattern for master and all useful men.

Then, there’s a tribute to Patience Borden, which describes how she was commonly called Sterry, a free woman of colour and humble disciple of Jesus. She gave to the First Baptist Church in this town of which she was a member 230 dollars as a fund for the relief of the poor of color of that church. She died in 1811 and her contribution at the time must have been fairly significant for it to have been memorialized, Emlen said.

NOT ALL GRAVESTONES CARRIED images or epitaphs. Emlen said that the fanciest stones or those with the longest epitaphs may have belonged to families of wealth since stone carvers charged by the letter. On the other hand, many gravestones belonging to some of Rhode Island’s wealthy families were as stark as those belonging to a servant or slave. Ultimately, it was “a matter of personal preference,” Bethune said.

The carvings and sayings also serve as a reflection of the culture and beliefs at the time. For example, a tombstone in Newport marks the graves of two young children. On the cemetery marker, along with their names, is a crude carving of an arm, with the notation that the children’s mother’s arm had been amputated and buried there in 1786. Early Christians believed the body had to be intact to make the journey to heaven, Stanford explained. So when the woman died seven years later, she was buried next to her children — and her amputated arm.
(Contrast that with today, when it’s not uncommon for people to have their bodies cremated and their ashes scattered.)

But by the 1900s, the trend was toward plain gravestones without fancy carvings or epitaphs, Bethune said.
Morenon said one reason for that is that the early cemeteries were seen as landscaped areas where people could go and enjoy nature, while also paying tribute to the dead. “We don’t see that so much today. I think we’ve shifted much more to the view that a graveyard is a place where we house the dead. . . . I don’t think cemeteries are as much of a community place as they used to be.” Bethune agreed. “We tended to want to keep death out of sight, out of mind. . . . You got your name and your date on a slab and that’s it. No nothing.”

That’s changing, Emlen said. “In the last few years, there’s been a real revolution. . . . Technology and society has allowed us to do what we want to do” with gravestones. “There used to be a dress code of what was appropriate and what was not,” Emlen said. But today, almost anything goes. “In a way, we’re coming full circle,” Bethune agreed. “If you drive to a new section of a cemetery today, you may see a laser-etched portrait of the person [who died] and, on the back, see a eulogy and maybe a list of the children’s names. . . . You see more and more people using details on gravestones. Technology has made it more affordable.”

There’s also more of a move to memorialize the person, instead of just burying them and forgetting them, she said. “What we’re seeing now is an increase in personalization of the gravestones, which is very similar to what the Victorians did. They believed that the stone was a personal statement about that individual.” That statement can be anything from a favorite biblical passage to a song lyric; a recently placed stone in the North Burial Ground reads: Who loves ya, baby. The personalization also shows up in decorations on the stone. One in the North Burial Ground from 1986 features a country scene with a horse-drawn carriage pulling up to a farm house and the words: Home at last.

Humor is also finding a place on tombstones, Bethune said, noting that one gravestone in Oregon says: This wasn’t on my calendar. One of her favorites is an Arkansas gravestone for a doctor, which reads: Office moved upstairs.

Emlen said a well-known gravestone in Little Compton identifies a woman as someone who “should have been the wife of” someone else. Some epitaphs prove to be unfortunate, Bethune noted. For example, she said, she hates to see the popular Victorian-era epitaph “gone but not forgotten” on a stone that is broken or has fallen into ruin. Ironically, the fake gravestones commonly seen this time of year usually feature the epitaph RIP — short for rest in peace. “It’s on nearly all the fake ones, and you just don’t see that on the real thing.”

THOUGH TOMBSTONES HAVE CHANGED over the years, ultimately they’re all the same — serving as a lasting reminder of the dead and a warning to the living of what is to come. Consider this poem on the back of a tombstone marking the North Burial Ground grave of Ernest Lavell Tucker, who died in 2001. He’d written the poem himself, and his family paid to have it memorialized in a bronze plaque on the back of his grave. It reads in part: My life is so complicated, it’s like I’m just here to survive. Time is running out. I feel myself coming closer and closer to death every day. . . . We are definitely living in our last days. So now it’s just like what ever. Ultimately, the message isn’t much different from the verse penned on a gravestone in 1702 in the Common Burying Ground in Newport: Behold and see for as I am now, so shall thou be. But as thou art, so once was I. Be sure of this: That thou must die.

One thought on “Happy Halloween!

  1. i cant wait to buy your book. i am facinated by old gravestones and just reading what you wrote made my day. your book will be my birthday gift to myself and i will stay up all night to finish it.

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