I have been studying the colonial gravestones of Cape Cod over the last 34 years. During this time, I have visited most of the early burying grounds repeatedly. I have carefully cleaned a number of gravestones of the lichen encrustations that chemically break down and corrode these slate markers, revealing the beautiful stone carvings beneath. I have photographed the gravestones as part of my systematic study of the use of symbolism and the evolution of carving styles on Cape stones. Lichens are, along with errant rider lawn mowers and the unavoidable freeze-thaw of winter, the greatest threats to the continued existence of colonial gravestones on the Cape and throughout New England. At present, I have accumulated more than 800 slides of Cape Cod gravestones. By comparing gravestones located in Cape cemeteries with those described in publications by Harriette Merrifield Forbes (
Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them, 1653-1800.
1927), Allan Ludwig (
Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815
. 1966.), and Dickran and Ann Tashjian (
Memorials for Children of Change: the Art of Early New England Stonecarving
. 1974.), it is possible to make some attribution of gravestones to specific stone carvers.
Interestingly, none of the above-mentioned publications make any reference to the cemeteries or gravestones of Cape Cod. Ludwig has stated that he felt Cape Cod gravestones likely would not present anything significantly new to his study of iconography (a very detailed and extensive study, indeed).11 The only publication known to me that deals specifically with Cape Cod gravestones is the excellent book,
Epitaph and Icon: a Field Guide to the Old Burying Grounds of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket
, by Diana Hume George and Malcolm A. Nelson (1983). This book describes most of the important early Cape cemeteries and their pre-Revolutionary gravestones, from the towns of Sandwich to Provincetown, providing insightful information on the use of symbolism, attributing stones to various carvers, and connecting eighteenth and early nineteenth century epitaphs with Biblical and literary source material. It is a comprehensive field guide to Cape cemeteries.
The sections that follow in this curriculum unit serve as an introduction to colonial gravestone symbolism in the teaching of students about Puritan beliefs about death and the afterlife. I use as my starting point Allan Ludwig's interpretations of gravestone symbolism that are applicable to Cape Cod stones. My various comments are intended to build on the material presented by George and Nelson in their field guide. By my tally,
Epitaph and Icon
contains 21 photographs of Cape Cod gravestones from the years 1683-1760 and discusses a total of 63 gravestones from this period. The book pictures a dozen of the most significant pre-1760 gravestones and discusses two-dozen others. Clearly, the authors devoted many hours to studying the Cape's burying grounds.
It is apparent to me, however, that a more comprehensive treatment of the gravestones of Cape Cod is needed in order to recognize the full range of carving styles present on the Cape, to appreciate the influence of Boston, Plymouth, and Newport style centers, to place Cape Cod gravestones in the larger tradition of colonial stone carving, and to teach about it! The Cape has fifteen seventeenth century gravestones (George and Nelson found eight), and there are more than 210 gravestones that pre-date 1730, just three dozen of which are mentioned in
Epitaph and Icon
. While Cape Cod has a limited number of gravestones from the period 1680-1709 (37 known to me), Cape cemeteries are particularly rich in gravestones of the period 1710-1719, with nearly 100 stones dating from this decade. This was a particularly interesting period in the development of gravestone imagery and carving techniques, occurring in the same decade when Cotton Mather was producing some of his important theological and medical writings.
The gravestones of Cape Cod represent more than a simple repetition of gravestones from Boston, Plymouth, and elsewhere in New England, and much can be learned by a careful study of their imagery and carving styles. During the development of this curriculum unit, I have spent a number of hours in the cemeteries of Barnstable, Yarmouth, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown, compiling information from gravestones that adds to descriptive information I had previously assembled. As I continue my fieldwork in cemeteries across the Cape in the weeks and months ahead, my database of 500 gravestones very likely will double in size, although most of the expansion of the list will occur with additions of stones from the period 1730-1760.
Cape Cod's oldest inscribed gravestone is the Dorothy Rawson stone (died 1683), found in Lothrop Hill Cemetery, Barnstable. It is not fully clear why it required nearly half a century of settlement before inscribed gravestones made their appearance in Cape cemeteries. The oldest gravestone found in a New England burying ground is the Rev. Ephraim Huit tablet or cenotaph (d. 1644) in Palisado Cemetery, Windsor, Connecticut. The earliest inscribed gravestones in Boston date to the 1650s. Possible explanations for the slow start in gravestones being placed in Cape cemeteries include a hesitancy of the early settlers to mark the graves of their growing numbers of deceased for fear of encouraging attack by the Native Americans, the initial absence of a gravestone carving tradition in the New World, the need to import gravestones from Boston and Plymouth carving centers, the use of uninscribed fieldstones to mark early burials, the use of wooden markers that have not survived, and the use of inscribed stones that have disappeared with the ensuing time.
Stannard (1977) writes of the English tradition of burial,
"[. . .] Very few pre-Restoration headstones exist in England today, suggesting that they were made of wood and have perished, that they were destroyed by Puritan zeal, or that they were simply never erected in the first place. Those few that do exist are almost uniformly small, simple blocks of stone."
The Dorothy Rawson stone, a slate stone with beautifully carved winged death's head, paired gourds, pumpkins, and the use of Latin text (
Vive Memor Loethi
– "the memory of the person lives") is the sophisticated product of a Boston-based carver, perhaps William Mumford. This gravestone is formed in the tripartite shape characteristic of essentially all non-cenotaph gravestones produced in the 1650s and following in New England. The Joseph Drake stone of Palisado Cemetery, Windsor, Connecticut (d. 1657) is an early example of the tripartite structure of gravestones. Many of the colonial gravestones also had footstones, designating with headstones the precise cemetery terrain in which the deceased's body was interred. The tripartite shape mirrors that of headboards and footboards to colonial beds, and metaphorically suggests the final resting place of the departed person.12 Nearly all inscribed gravestones in Cape Cod cemeteries were produced using slate quarried and carved off-Cape in Boston, Charlestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts or Newport, Rhode Island style centers and subsequently exported to the Cape for use in memorializing the dead. Cape Cod is a glacially formed peninsula consisting of sand and gravel and the occasional boulder, or glacial erratic. The only gravestones that safely can be attributed to local Cape Cod stone carvers are the crudely carved fieldstones (or perhaps the lightly inscribed imported slate stones) found in a number of Cape cemeteries, most notably Lothrop Hill (Barnstable), Ancient Cemetery (Yarmouth), Cove Burying Ground (Eastham), the Old Burying Ground in Orleans, and Wellfleet's Chequessett Neck Cemetery (known locally as Indian Cemetery). Lothrop Hill and Ancient Cemetery have the best examples of what appear to be a series of burials in parallel plots using both headstones and footstones. These fieldstones also happen to be located in the oldest sections of each cemetery. A careful study of fieldstone markers in Cape cemeteries is very much needed, and it should include partial excavation of stones buried by shifting land surfaces, removal of lichen encrustations, and comparison with the pattern of burials over time in each cemetery. I comment further on these early fieldstone markers later in the narrative.
The second and third earliest stones on the Cape are the Hope Chipman stone (d. 1683[/84]) in Barnstable (incorrectly considered by some historical narratives to be the oldest Cape stone, due to the failure to distinguish Old Style from New Style dates) and the Thomas Clark stone (d. ca. 1684) in Sandwich. Each of these stones is a carefully prepared, dressed stone (front and back surfaces are flat) with tripartite structure but completely lacking in the use of iconography. The Thomas Burgess stone (d. 1685[/86]) and the Dorothy Burgess stone (d. 1687[/88]), husband and wife buried in Sandwich, also may have lacked iconography but their original headstones are lost and only their footstones remain, standing behind replacement slate stones erected in 1917. The next oldest gravestone, that of young John Prince in Sandwich (d. 1689), has a simple, winged death's head but is unique to Cape gravestones in lacking iconographic carving on the pilasters. Thereafter, all Cape Cod gravestones of the 1690s through the remainder of the colonial period use some combination of carved images of death and rebirth.