Burying ground. Cemetery. Grave yard. I should find them spooky, but I don’t. In fact I find them peaceful, beautiful…and full of history!
Grave markers are actually succinct little packages of material culture. What’s material culture you ask? It’s the everyday stuff of life. The things we use that illustrate how we live—when left behind they tell our story, or at least a part of it.
For example, the Victorians left us a plethora of serving and eating utensils. They didn’t just use a salad fork and a dinner fork…they had pickle forks, strawberry forks…and on and on! Even though you had to be able to afford the extra implements, the fact they were developed tells us they took their meals very seriously. Grave markers are still grave markers, but the language and symbols on them exhibit the ideas and conditions of the time they were installed.
Living in Massachusetts I get to see some very old grave markers, so let’s check out how life evolved in the area by comparing markers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
DEATH’S HEAD AND ANGEL OF DEATH
Early colonists had it rough.
If they were lucky enough to survive the trans-Atlantic voyage, manage to settle and feed themselves, there were still plenty of hardships we don’t face today: common illnesses (or the medicine used to treat them—yikes!) could kill you, pissed of natives whose land you took might kill you, or you might have committed (or even just be accused of) a crime whose punishment could do you in. Even a petty crime could result in disfigurement which could become infected…you get the picture!
People lived in fear. So what do we commonly see on grave markers from the 1600’s and into the 1700’s? Skulls, the Angel of Death and skull and crossed bones. Scary!
Multiple examples of the death’s head/angel of death motif found at the Granary Burying Ground on Park Street in Boston, Massachusetts.
A crude stylized death’s head or mask from the mid-eighteenth century. Note the spiral motifs flanking the head. South Burying Place, Concord, Massachusetts.
TREES & CHERUBS
As the decades passed life became somewhat easier, and certainly more optimistic. The more people settled, the greater the variety of belief systems—things softened a bit. This is expressed in the symbols found on grave markers: the weeping willow and the cherub.
The willow expresses enduring sorrow for the loss; it is known as the first tree to bud out in Spring and last to lose its leaves each year, and its elegant drooping form seems to convey sadness.
The cherub is a symbol of the better life to come in Heaven; a sweet, welcoming presence. Funerals and all that go with them are for the sake of the living, and it is comforting to think of your departed loved one being guided to a better place by baby-faced angels.
The weeping willow is often accompanied by an urn…in case you didn’t get that someone died! Both the willow and urn were popular through the nineteenth century, as seen here on this marker from 1847. Found at South Burying Place, Concord, Massachusetts.
I haven’t seen this one personally (yet), but it was also found in Boston, Massachusetts by Gun Street Girl.
You can see from the difference in symbols used on grave markers that views on both life and death had changed quite a bit over the course of a hundred or so years. Of course as with anything there is overlap, trends are never exact. In fact, I found this example in the Copps Hill Burying Ground:
Both skull and crossed bones and a cherub! Interesting how the skull is facing sideways. There are a few markers with side-facing skulls at Copps Hill, so far the only place I have seen them–any thoughts?
There is more to this topic, plenty enough for a future post one day…maybe next Halloween!
So tell me…are you creeped out by burying grounds? Are you seeing them in a new light? Share your thoughts in the comments, or over on Facebook…and Happy Halloween!