The Old Cemetery in Plympton stretches along Route 58 in the center of town. The oldest gravestone is from 1707, although it is probably that several older burials are here, because there was settlement in the western part of Plymouth (which became Plympton) at least in the late 1600s. The left side of the cemetery is called Hillcrest Cemetery and it is separated by the main cemetery road.
The right side is the much older cemetery, overwhelmingly made of slate stones, most of which are suffering the fate of time. Many stones have sunk into the ground, or split in half horizontally or vertically, and many are faded or covered in lichen.
Here is a sunken stone with a beautiful winged death head:
Despite this, the cemetery has quite a few stones left in good shape, and these stones offer magnificent artwork that most people (outside the realm of gravestone researchers and those who like to wander about cemeteries!) are not aware of. The renown James Deetz did some early work here on his research of New England gravestones, published as an article entitled “Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow“, which eventually became incorporated into his great book In Small Things Forgotten. He identified the Soule family of Plympton as an important example of the transition from death heads to more humanistic forms, as well as the evidence of artistic flare individuals carvers had. The Soule stones are easily identifiable, for the boast a unique “Medusa” form that is a blend of skull and human face, with wild hair/wing forms radiating from the heads.
The article explains it much more thoroughly, even including a marvelous map of the evolution of the Soule’s forms themselves.
As a comparison (and a compliment to the craftsmanship of the Soules), here is a much cruder form of the Medusa head that is by an unknown carver (perhaps a copycat – although I do not know the date on this stone) :
The town of Plympton also has done a significant amount of work in helping to preserve the cemetery. The town is still small, and it is good to see a town so value its history. Here is a very useful guide to the cemetery done by survey, which includes a master index of all the historical stones.
Some older transcriptions also exist through the Mayflower Descendant.
The cemetery is filled with old Plympton families, and there is a great website by Paul Bumpas with many pictures of individual graves. On a white marble stone I saw an interesting stone, of a hand holding a book (with no text, it appears).
I explored today seeking a few ancestors, but also surveying the Soule stones, admiring their distinctive style. After browsing through so many graveyards over the years, it is usually obvious to distinguish stones of a particular carver, for both the writing and the artwork provide clues. But all too often the written records of gravestone transactions are lost, and the names of carvers are lost to history. So it is heartening when names and records survive, thus providing a context to the beautiful designs gracing so many stones out in countless cemeteries.
I am also currently writing a research paper on childhood death in Puritan and Victorian New England, using gravestones and death poetry/elegies. The John Hay library boasts an impressive collection of broadsides that contain poems published upon the death of a child. And my personal photography collection includes a number of interesting children’s gravestones, but now I am seeking for a few more.